If done well, movies about dysfunctional families are able to elegantly dance that fine line between humor and pain. Terms of Endearment succeeded at finding that balance, as does the film adaptation of Tracy Letts's Pulitzer Prize-winning play August: Osage County, where an unplanned death reopens life-long yet still festering wounds. The Weston clan of Osage County, Okla., must have a family tree that looks like a weeping willow. It is headed up by Beverly (Sam Shepard), a college lecturer and occasional poet, and his poly-addicted wife, Violet (Meryl Streep), who personifies how pills came to be known as mother’s little helpers. Of their three grown daughters, only Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) has stuck close to home; Barbara (Julia Roberts) and Karen (Juliette Lewis) long ago picked up stakes for relationships by turn strained or serially monogamous.
When Beverly’s body is found in a local lake, the funeral draws various other relatives and partners: Violet’s sister (Margo Martindale), her husband (Chris Cooper) and their son, Little Charlie (Benedict Cumberbatch); Barbara’s estranged husband (Ewan McGregor) and teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin); and Karen’s latest beau (Dermot Mulroney). That each person carries an agenda or two makes for lively supper talk in a post-funeral dinner scene that took up most of the play's second act and is by turns poisonous and hilarious.
Despite attempts to celebrate the life they’ve lost, what arises are the chaotic lives the survivors are barely surviving. Apologies frequently haze the air but seem to evaporate before they hit their target. These people love to hold grudges and go for one another’s underbellies. Violet, in particular, is sharp of tongue and cold of heart, yet, thanks to Meryl Streep’s ferocious performance, she can summon empathy when she's feeling nostalgic, recounting stories from her own “rotten childhood.” And Julia Roberts, to her credit, holds her own, perhaps because she's not playing a character who needs to be loved (a trait that's been her Achilles heel her whole career).
Though the play spanned three acts and over three hours, Letts has condensed the piece into a little over 120 minutes. With a cast this big, some back stories get a little lost and fuzzy, and director John Wells doesn't do anything with this assignment that's inventive or startling. Still, its truths, tarnished with spite and malice, are epic.
August: Osage County| Dir. John Wells| 121 minutes | Playing at Fine Arts Theatres