Playwright (and sometimes actor) Tracy Letts garnered a Pulitzer Prize for “August: Osage County,” which first hit Broadway in 2007 with actress Deanna Dunagan in the lead role of Violet, the 65-year-old, boozing, pill-popping, cancer-stricken, sharp-tongued matriarch of the Weston family. Estelle Parsons later morphed into the role on tour and did a superb job with it. On stage, the spectacle unfolded into a brilliant, three-act odyssey of dysfunctional family dynamics and the emotional quicksand from which people struggle to be freed.
The much-anticipated film directed by John Wells (The Company of Men) mirrors the play and benefits from a screen adaptation from Letts himself—nobody knows the material better, after all. But direction and screenwriting, as prolific and layered as it is at times, collide with each other far too often here to produce the most effective result: To evoke a genuine, lingering empathy for the characters and feel moved by their journey, however sour it turns. As a director, Wells takes somewhat of a hands-off approach, freeing the creative reigns on his actors too often, most notably Meryl Streep—divine as she is as toxic Violet—and Julia Roberts, who, holding her own opposite a scenery-chewing Streep, still manages to turn in one of the best performances of her career. As a result, there’s a tendency to feel continually assaulted by the dysfunction on screen rather than be moved by it to the degree that some compassion kicks in. It’s a subtle fault and at times weighs down what, overall, is a memorable tour de force packed to the brim with some of the finest performances—individual and collective—to hit the screen in some time. The tale unfolds in the Weston home in rural Oklahoma where several family members return after patriarch Beverly (Sam Shepard) disappears. There are sisters (Roberts, Juliette Lewis and a noteworthy Julianne Nicholson), a plucky aunt (oh, it’s hard not to adore you, Margo Martindale), the aunt’s hubby (Chris Cooper) and son (Benedict Cumberbatch), among others. And everyone, aside from Cooper’s character, is holding onto some family resentment. The best verbal boxing matches occur between Streep and Roberts—both actresses have already garnered Golden Globe noms and Oscar noms will follow. But while the pace of the play allowed for an emotional storm to build upon itself, the film feels more like a creative hurricane, a wicked, and yet, at times, entertaining, latter day Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which, like it’s lead, Violet, just doesn’t know when to let go. Rated PG-13. 121 minutes. ★★★/4