August: Osage County: Meryl Streep Leads the Yammering Ensemble

August: Osage County

Opens Fri., Jan. 10 at Guild 45th and other theaters. Rated R. 118 minutes.

Tracy Letts won the Pulitzer Prize for his play August: Osage County, and he has written the screenplay for this film. If you seek a useful yardstick for the distance between stage and screen, this movie provides one: Here is a writer adapting his own work for the movies, and there is almost no evidence of how this display of canned yammering could possibly have won a high literary honor.

Admittedly, if you imagine everything playing out on one set, with August ’s overlapping dramatic arcs and crafted one-liners creating an actors’ showcase, the thing could work as a dramatic night in the theater. But open all that up to the outdoors, dissipate the pressure-cooker structure with lapses in time, and let director John Wells add a sentimental spirit to the proceedings, and you’ve got one middling movie. Osage County is in Oklahoma, where the lemony matriarch of the Weston family, Violet (Meryl Streep), has gathered the clan in the aftermath of tragedy. She has three daughters, and while she treats sensible Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and silly Karen (Juliette Lewis) badly enough, she saves her special venom for her favorite, Barbara (Julia Roberts). Barbara’s marriage to an academic (Ewan McGregor) is unraveling, so she’s in the mood for a tussle, and we’re going to get one.

The cast is heavy with good folk, including Margo Martindale as Violet’s overshadowed sister (Chris Cooper plays her easy-livin’ husband), and an uncharacteristically tongue-tied Benedict Cumberbatch. All those family tensions take time to sort out, but it really comes down to Barbara standing up to her mother—and to Streep and Roberts playing with the material like prizefighters. And while Streep is the savvy, surgical Muhammad Ali to Roberts’ blunt-punching Joe Frazier in that match, there’s a sense that even Dame Meryl is coasting on technique here. The gotcha dialogue is just a little too easy, and Wells (who directed the dreary Company Men in 2010) encourages everybody to bop their lines right on the nose.

This big serving of ham and eggs wants to be taken seriously. The Weinstein Company’s ad campaign, which emphasizes the family bitch-fest angle, suggests they know otherwise. August can be enjoyed on that level, but if you think too hard about what a Pulitzer is, your head will hurt.

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