Designed as one big, sloppy thesp-a-thon, the film adaptation of August: Osage County interprets one of the past decade’s most overly hyped dramas with the conviction usually lavished on top-drawer Eugene O’Neill. Tracy Letts, who adapted his Pulitzer Prize–winning play for the screen, never got Tolstoy’s memo about how “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” and as a result we’re treated to a veritable banquet of American-theater tropes sensationalizing intergenerational dysfunction: banshee-like women and taciturn men in the autumn of their years, and progeny who either suffer for their familial devotion or lose their souls to escape the nuthouse. As if domestic woes were not enough to fill this 119-minute ensemble piece (cut down from the original’s endless three-plus hours), there are enough lingering shots of haystacks, small-town streets, and the cast’s requisite Native American martyr to signal a deeper sickness of the Midwestern soul.
While views of the sun-kissed Oklahoma plains intermittently open out the play’s insular setting, the key action still unfolds in a two-story house just tidy enough to make all of the plot’s batshit reversals and betrayals that much more unsettling. When the family patriarch (Sam Shepard)—a once-celebrated poet whose career was sacrificed early on to alcoholism—suddenly goes missing, his three daughters, their significant others, and a handful of other relatives gather around the cancer-stricken matriarch (Meryl Streep), who can barely muster the wherewithal to conceal her insatiable pill-popping.
Among these guests emerges the usual split between leaders and followers, the strong and the weak. There’s Barbara (Julia Roberts), the self-appointed grown-up of the siblings, nursing fresh emotional wounds inflicted by a philandering husband. There’s the congenitally clueless sister (Juliette Lewis) who fled the scene years ago and has now returned with a sleazy, sports-car-driving fiancé (Dermot Mulroney). There’s the doormat cousin (Benedict Cumberbatch), his belittling mother (Margo Martindale), and a glassy-eyed, pot-smoking member of the younger generation (Abigail Breslin). As all the players come shuffling in through the front door, you can smell the showstopping dinner table standoff from a mile away.
You’ve got to hand it to director John Wells, though: despite a maddening lack of imagination, August never once approaches the dull sanctimony of Ordinary People or the smug self-satisfaction of American Beauty, two of the Oscar-feted family sagas the film could have easily chosen to emulate. Any member of the target audience should be able to pinpoint what keeps this jumble of clichés so riveting: a wisely steadfast focus on Streep. Since pop culture began caricaturing her as the World’s Greatest Living Actress, every film in which she’s starred has on a certain level played as a one-woman show, with even the most venerable of her cast mates seeming to serve merely as space-fillers. Aside from fellow veterans Chris Cooper and Martindale, every actor here ends up getting schooled, coming off callow and inauthentic.
Streep’s extravagant arsenal of gestures, facial tics, and inflections has become so familiar by now that she constantly seems to be treading a line between sublime expressiveness and SNL parody. Say what you will about the shallowness of Letts’s vision, at least he has Streep baring her fangs again, delivering enough punch lines to resurrect some of the ruthlessness that made The Devil Wears Prada and The Manchurian Candidate recent career highlights for her. As in the TV adaptation of Angels in America, Streep embraces the theatricality of her dialogue, swooping from alto depths to bloodcurdling screams and cackles with the deliberateness of an opera singer unleashing an aria. To complain that she lacks the vulnerability of classic crazies like Katharine Hepburn’s Mary Tyrone or Vivien Leigh’s Blanche DuBois is to miss the point: a film like this justifies its existence not by uncovering new realms of despair but by demonstrating how virtuosic acting can triumph over half-baked material.