“I’m just truth telling,” says Meryl Streep’s Violet, the gorgon mother at the center of “August: Osage County,” and in that same spirit I have to confess that (a) I never saw this Pulitzer Prize-winning vehicle by Tracy Letts when it was on stage and (b) nothing about this film version makes me regret that choice.
Despite a pedigree that includes five Tonys in addition to that Pulitzer and a cast of gifted actors that is a full dozen deep, “August: Osage County” does nothing but disappoint, with all the talent involved simply underlining how uninvolving this material is.
If anything, the cinematic “August” feels related to that branch of reality TV where dysfunctional characters, whether active or passive, make a public display of their wretched lives. If you think your family is difficult, seeing the Westons will set you straight. Unless you are actually related to them, however, caring about these people is out of the question.
Set in August 2007 in tiny Pawhuska, Okla., and actually shot in the real Osage County, this film reveals one of its flaws almost from the start. As directed by John Wells from a script by Letts, “August” plays like the play it was, with dialogue and situations displaying the kind of artificiality that does not work well on the screen.
Violet’s husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard), sets the scene by telling Johanna (Misty Upham), the young Cheyenne woman he is hiring as a caretaker, “my wife takes pills and I drink, that’s the bargain we’ve struck.” And that’s not the half of it.
A completely addled Violet puts in an appearance of her own soon enough, and the script’s description of her as “dissipated, disheveled” doesn’t really do justice to her ghost of Christmas past appearance.
Violet, as it turns out, has mouth cancer, an especially ironic affliction for a woman who has used her savage tongue to terrorize her family for decades. She’s someone who believes that if you can’t say something hateful, you shouldn’t say anything at all. She is, to quote the much more genial Oscar Wilde, “a monster without being a myth, which is terribly unfair.” Streep is convincing, as always, but with this character you almost wish she wasn’t.
Given Violet’s tendencies, it’s no real surprise that husband Beverly disappears shortly after hiring Johanna. This action precipitates a gathering of the Weston clan, a group that makes Bruce Dern’s screen family in “Nebraska” seem like the Brady Bunch.
Closest in tone to Violet is sister Mattie Fae Aiken (Margo Martindale), a woman who enjoys tormenting her quiet husband, Charles Aiken (Chris Cooper), and a son whose borderline haplessness is indicated by his Little Charles nickname (a wasted Benedict Cumberbatch).
The people Violet cares about most, however, are her three very different daughters. Quiet Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) lives in the neighborhood, but wild and crazy Karen (a lively Juliette Lewis) has to drive in from Florida with “this year’s man,” the genially amoral Steve (Dermot Mulroney).
The daughter Violet wants to see most, however, is alpha sibling Barbara (Julia Roberts), who shows up with baggage of her own. This includes her estranged husband, Bill (an unrecognizable Ewan McGregor), and their standard issue disaffected teenage daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin).
Because writer Letts is an actor himself, he knows how to write parts that these actors enjoy tearing into, and this is especially apparent in “August’s” centerpiece, a 19-page dinner scene in which guests are more interested in taking savage bites out of one another than the meal on their plates.
Each of the film’s dozen actors has his or her moment in “August,” but these virtuoso performances do not move us. Despite the story’s melodramatic contrivances the creation of characters we actually care about is beyond this film’s capabilities. Individuals on the screen certainly get worked up about secrets hidden and revealed, but those trapped in the audience will wonder why they should be bothered.
‘August: Osage County’
MPAA rating: R, for language, including sexual references, and for drug material
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
Playing: In limited release