August: Osage County, playwright Tracy Letts’ supercharged family drama, careens onto the screen with an A-list cast in high gear. When a family patriarch (Sam Shepard) goes AWOL, his pill-popping wife (Meryl Streep) summons her daughters home to the ground zero of nuclear family dysfunction. The movie, which Letts adapted for the screen, opens the setting up to include the bleak vistas of the Oklahoma plains, emphasizing the isolation of this seething mess of a family.
But the script cannot shed the confines of the stage. The acting style could be called “heightened” (The New York Times‘ A.O. Scott amusingly called the film a “thespian cage match”). This isn’t necessarily bad if you enjoy seeing actors tear into the carcass of a plot as if it is a particularly tasty piece of road kill. Streep plays a mama whose creeping cancer of the mouth still does not make her shut up, as a grim Julia Roberts along with Margo Martindale, Juliette Lewis, Dermot Mulroney, Abigail Breslin and Chris Cooper barge in with blackly comic barbs and start scrapping. Ewan McGregor is overwhelmed, and Benedict Cumberbatch fans should be warned that not only is his part rather small but his drawl slips. “Thank God we can’t tell the future, or we’d never get out of bed,” one character opines, a warning some viewers may wish they’d heard earlier.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Big small films.”