Without big truth-telling scenes, grand, great-lady, Meryl Streep-type actors would be out of work. Hell, Meryl Streep would be out of work. But for now, at least, August: Osage County, John Wells’s film adaptation of Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway hit, keeps her out of the bread line.
Streep plays Vi Weston, the pill-gobbling matriarch of an Oklahoma plains family who can’t open her mouth without some version of her idea of the truth popping out: Women get uglier as they age; children who leave home to lead their own lives are ungrateful wretches; refusing to wear makeup makes a woman look like a lesbian; and so forth. In the big dinner-table scene — because that’s where the biggest truth bombs always get dropped — Vi, hopped up on pills, presides over her motley brood with cruel, woozy authority, her terrible mouth motoring on. Vi rules the roost, just as Streep rules the scene. No other performer in August: Osage County — not Julia Roberts, not Chris Cooper, not Ewan McGregor — can get in her way. Her gaze vaporizes all other actors on contact. If she were a Batman villain, she’d be called The Actress.
Admittedly, August: Osage County is a comedy, a bleak one, and that’s an arena in which Streep usually thrives: She’s a brilliant comic actress, terrific even in otherwise undistinguished pictures like Julie & Julia, perhaps because those roles most effectively expose some otherwise hidden vulnerability, kicking something loose in her. August: Osage County, however, bitterly funny in some places and numbingly earnest in others, is just too much Streep. But all is not lost. Some of her fellow actors are resourceful enough to reconstruct themselves after being obliterated.
The movie opens with a brief, intriguing scene in which Vi’s husband, Bev, a boozehound poet played by a wonderfully grizzled Sam Shepard, appears to be explaining the simple intricacies of his marriage (“My wife takes pills, I drink”) in voiceover. It turns out he’s really giving the 411 to the young woman, Johnna (the blessedly understated Misty Upham), he’s just hired to look after the house and after Vi. Because Vi, in addition to being a holy terror scarred by a terrible childhood, has mouth cancer. Suddenly, she swans into the room, her hair reduced by chemo to a Joan of Arc caplet of stubble, and begins berating Johnna seemingly for sport. “Are you an Injun?” she asks. (Johnna, as it turns out, is Cheyenne.) Streep has arrived, drifting around the room with her no-makeup face and droopy turtleneck. Acting! Can’t you just smell it?
But then Bev mysteriously disappears, and the couple’s three children and their attendant spouses and boyfriends descend upon the dark, oppressive Weston house: Those include Roberts’s Barbara, the daughter who escaped the family clutches and moved to Colorado with her poet husband, Bill (McGregor, looking a little miserable in his pressed Dockers); Julianne Nicholson’s Ivy, the “plain” daughter who stayed at home but who clearly yearns for something more; and the third daughter, Juliette Lewis’s flaky, self-absorbed Karen, toting along a sleazy new fiancé, Steve (Dermot Mulroney). Other relations follow: Vi’s sister, brother-in-law, and nephew (Margo Martindale, Cooper, and Benedict Cumberbatch), all of whom proceed to poke at or ignore one another when they’re not pouring all their energy into avoiding Streep’s Eye of Sauron at the head of the dinner table. Somewhere in the last third, a big secret — which is something like a regular old truth, only bigger — pops out, stunning all those who don’t already know it.
For a film version of a play, always a tricky proposition, August: Osage County is effective enough. Wells (The Company Men) and cinematographer Adriano Goldman give the movie a strong sense of place: At one point, Roberts’s Barbara, riding in a car’s passenger seat, reflects on the cruel, dull beauty of the plains, and we know just what she’s talking about as we see them rolling by, looking deceptively innocuous. And every supporting actor here rallies, though some seem frozen by the movie’s unapologetically stagey dialogue. At one point, Roberts delivers a soliloquy ending with the line, “Thank God we can’t read the future — we’d never get out of bed,” and you can almost see an imaginary casting director out there in an empty house, wearing reading glasses on a chain and saying crisply, “Thank you, Miss Roberts, we’ll be in touch.”
Still, Roberts comes off as the most relaxed performer here, the one who keeps pulling the story back into the territory of movies. She has the face, and the presence, for it: bone structure that fills up the frame but doesn’t knock it out of joint, an easy way of laughing that can also betray depths of bitterness, and those impossibly liquid eyes. Roberts clearly works hard, but unlike She Who Must Not Be Named, she makes it look easy. She’ll never be a great-lady actress, but she at least gives us something to watch. Sometimes it’s a relief to escape all that truth.