‘August: Osage County’ is study in dysfunction

Jan. 10, 2014 @ 05:02 AM

The actors don’t just chew the scenery in “August: Osage County”— they engorge it. For two excruciating hours, otherwise talented performers are untethered from any directorial moorings, running with sharp dialogue and other dangerous devices. The actors run the asylum, but it’s the audience who feels like their undergoing an lobotomy.

Adapted with little medium modulation from the Pulitzer-winning play by Tracy Letts, “August: Osage County” lures an abnormal family back to their Oklahoma homestead in the wake of the early disappearance of Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), its patriarch — we’ll call him “the lucky one.” Violet (Meryl Streep), Beverly’s crass, boozy, pill-popping wife, is “consoled” by her sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and daughters Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis). The women’s unfortunate significant others are along for the ride, including Chris Cooper, Dermot Mulroney and Benedict Cumberbatch.

This family gathering assumes the form of a bilious orgy of shrill insults and stunning dysfunction, all compressed into a single hellish weekend. Indeed, just one of the numerous awful exchanges would be enough to send all but the most masochistic relatives packing. Instead, they stick around for revelations of incest, infidelity and pedophilia, laced with a torrent of barbs aimed at everything from clothing to hairstyles to being vegan. The situations are not only uncomfortable but also contrived.

Among the lot of regrettable performances, Streep’s is singularly risible. Her Violet is a midwestern melange of Norma Desmond and Joan Rivers, with an accent stuck somewhere between Tulsa and Tuscaloosa. Only Roberts and Nicholson manage to save any dignity, but the former is undercut by ludicrous prose and predicaments, while the latter is spared by simply having the good sense to drive away from this madhouse.

At one point, Violet’s stoic Native American caregiver (Misty Upham) takes a shovel to the head of a lecherous character. If only she’d kept swinging at the rest of this calamitous clan, this story may have had a happy ending.