Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep and Julianne Nicholson spar in "August: Osage County." Credit: The Weinstein Company
‘August: Osage County’ Director: John Wells Stars: Meryl Streep, Julianne Nicholson Rating: R 2 (out of 5) Globes
Because of their awards, the plays of Tracy Letts have the veneer of respectability. But what they really do is straddle a line between technique and all-out trash. “August: Osage County” won the Pulitzer Prize, but it’s not much classier than “Bug” and “Killer Joe,” redneck extravaganzas that William Friedkin turned into delightfully keyed-up films. Friedkin might as well have also tackled “August: Osage County,” a family reunion piece that doesn’t end, as “Joe” did, with an extended bout of chicken drumstick fellatio, but does feature its own barnstorming dinner scene that should never have been played with a modicum of taste.
Instead, the job went to “ER” vet John Wells and, predictably and inevitably, he has no idea how to handle it. He’s an earnest, serious artist whose debut film, “The Company Men,” plays as though it’s plodding through a flow chart about what happens to the unemployed in a downturn economy. His hiring is endemic of the film’s misguided conception.
The film kicks off semi-promisingly, with Sam Sheppard, a lonely patriarch whose wife (Meryl Streep) is ill and has become addicted to a daily cocktail of drugs. Sheppard is never better here, relaxed and subtly suggesting a life of little tragedies. It’s a shock when he disappears and kills himself off-screen — and unfortunate because there’s no one left to stop Meryl Streep.
And Streep is Wells’ biggest problem. He has no idea how to rein her in. She’s a brilliant actress, of course, but she requires boundaries. Give her strict guidelines, and she’ll churn out a cucumber cool monster boss in “The Devil Wears Prada.” Give her a drug addict pouncing on her family at a disastrous dinner, and you get her bulging her eyes, singing through a Southern accent and flailing about like a liquored-up performance artist. It’s peer-through-your-fingers bad, but occasionally she calms down, surrenders the floor and you can see the actress who’s usually excellent, even if she’s simply warming up for more.
Much of “August: Osage County” is a mess. When it’s serious, it’s too serious. When it’s “funny,” it’s camp. Poor Julia Roberts, as Streep’s sweariest, most bitter daughter: She’s done wonders, as in “Duplicity,” at playing cold and brittle. But she’s mysteriously at a loss here. Witness her “Eat the f—in' fish” scene,” leaked by the studio as an Oscar-bait clip but better employed as an instant bad cinema classic.
It’s unfortunate about its tonal problems and two off key performances, as everyone else at least tries and is, in some cases, quite good. Margo Martindale is a fine bully to her cartoonishly meek son (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is banging who he thinks is his cousin (Julianne Nicholson). Nicholson is the center of the storm, but has a spoilerable issue that makes her surprisingly interesting and touching. And both Juliette Lewis and Chris Cooper eventually calm down enough to kill a surprising monologue each. Dermot Mulroney, as Lewis' aloof, skeezy fiance, is a welcome comic relief in what's supposed to be a comedy. Thanks to their hard work, it’s occasionally easy to think the film’s chugging along just fine.