On film, "August: Osage County" is mostly about the shouting and the A-C-T-I-N-G.

What a mistake.

Director John Wells' starry-eyed cinematic treatment of Tracy Letts' 2008 Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning dramedy about a dysfunctional family is foiled by its emphasis on performance over words.

It's one thing to watch at a safe distance in the mezzanine the bickering, caterwauling and cruelty that results when a patriarch goes missing in a small town in Oklahoma. Transplanting the acidic family feuding from stage to screen, however, forces the audience to sit right at the table with a bushel of Hollywood A-listers, all of whom are gesticulating and emoting their hearts out.

The celebrity-studded theatrics backfire, making the slurred speech patterns, shattering secrets and venomous put-downs erupt so melodramatically that at times they border on parody. Though I never got a chance to see it on stage -- where it clocked in at nearly three and a half hours -- I came away from the film with a sense I would have liked it better live and uncondensed.

Granted, the large cast is formidable and frontloaded with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, both of whom haul out their Oscar-winning cutlery to carve into Letts' juicy prime-rib slabs of dialogue. To be fair, both actresses have gotten some positive reviews for their performances here, including SAG awards, as did the cast. But in my view, cluttering this adaptation with so many identifiable actors and zooming in on them for Norma Desmond-like close-ups detracts from Letts' wounding blitz of sentences.


Streep, in a dark wig that appears to have gone on a long bender and never stumbled back, is a hurricane force as pill-popping, cancer-stricken matriarch Violet Weston. She's wicked at drawing blood with Letts' harsh lines, but Wells allows her too much free reign to roll around theatrically in the family rot. A little less might have resulted in more.

Relatives gather around Streep's mean mama, who is suffering from mouth cancer and drug addiction after her poet husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard), goes missing from the diseased homestead (who could blame him?).

(L-R) Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep and Julianne Nicholson in ’August: Osage County.’ (Claire Folger/Weinstein)
(L-R) Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep and Julianne Nicholson in 'August: Osage County.' (Claire Folger/Weinstein) (CLAIRE FOLGER)

His disappearance reunites three sisters: the uptight Barbara (Roberts, quite good in an appropriately strained and haggard-looking performance), the helpful but unsatisfied Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and the needy Karen (Juliette Lewis, a standout who shows surprising restraint). All of the women are lugging around emotional baggage handed off by previous generations.

The men around them complicate matters further, including Barbara's smart husband (Ewan McGregor), Ivy's hot mess of a second cousin (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Karen's smarmy new boyfriend (Dermot Mulroney).

Letts tangles up even more branches on the family tree to include Barbara's precocious daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin), and Violet's none-too-maternalistic sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), and her decent husband, Charlie (Chris Cooper). Meanwhile, the newly hired Native American housekeeper, Johanna (Misty Upham), watches from the sidelines and eventually takes matters into her own hands.

We wish someone else might have done the same, scaling back on all the histrionics -- yes, including that scene of table-setting destruction -- and allowing Letts' screenplay to breathe.

After all, the play should be the thing here.


* *

Rating: R (for language, including sexual references, and for drug material)

Cast: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis
Director: John Wells
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes