"How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child!"
Violet Weston would eagerly echo King Lear's angry sentiment, and drop some f-bombs for good measure. Like Shakespeare's ill-fated monarch, raging Violet erratically rules a family with three daughters and a fool on the household's margins. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning play August: Osage County, Tracy Letts presents the dissolution of a family, not a kingdom, but still offers an onstage equivalent to Shakespeare's tragic downfalls and blistering rhetoric.
Compared to the Alliance Theatre's scorching 2011 production of the stage play, director John Wells' film adaptation significantly turns down the temperature of August: Osage County. It remains a compelling, at times uproariously funny depiction of domestic power struggles, even though the film version seldom takes the gloves off.
We first see Violet (Meryl Streep) in a bathrobe, looking bedraggled, with the thin, patchy hair of a cancer patient. Despite ill health and an addiction to pills, Violet still spews some bigoted remarks toward the Native American housekeeper (Misty Upham) hired by her alcoholic husband Beverly (Sam Shepard). Shortly thereafter Beverly goes missing, leading to an impromptu family reunion of their grown daughters. Dutiful Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) still lives in town and resents that she has to wrangle her parents alone. Flighty Karen (Juliette Lewis) has cast off most of her obligations to her kin. Seething Barbara (Julia Roberts) has a status in between her siblings, having moved to Colorado, but keeps in touch just enough for her mother to lash out at her.
Not surprisingly, Streep feasts on her role. At times, Violet, her scalp nearly exposed, speaks in regretful reveries and nearly wins our sympathy. Other times, she dons a wig like a helmet on the field of battle and belittles any of the relatives she sets her sights on. Streep's always enticing, although she seems to be giving two separate performances, rather than different aspects of the same woman. (Also, as in the Alliance production, Violet has mouth cancer, but no noticeable speech impediment.)
Playing opposite Streep clearly inspires Roberts to draw on new resources as an actress. She gives probably her most interesting performance since Erin Brockovich and her best rendition of a prickly, unlikable character. Roberts invests Barbara with a steely determination that drives the story without ever attempting to charm the audience.
Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper's earthy married couple lead an outstanding ensemble, with the only weak link provided by Benedict Cumberbatch as their son, "Little Charles." Cumberbatch can brilliantly convey the intellect of a Sherlock Holmes or Julian Assange, but seems at sea in playing a hopeless underachiever. His Little Charles isn't just "a little slow," but seems barely above the status of village idiot — you wouldn't trust him with a book of matches.
Compared to the stage play, the film follows its high-decibel confrontation scenes with cooling-off periods. Wells offers plenty of close-ups of the characters staring across the plains with easy music on the soundtrack. Such moments don't rid August: Osage County of its intensity, but merely feel like moments of calm before the storms.