Thursday, January 9, 2014

Great cast puts 'Osage' on the map

A family that goes way beyond dysfunctional.

The big-screen version of Tracy Letts's Pulitzer Prize winning play -- August: Osage County -- may not reach the cinematic stratosphere, but it mostly holds it own. Credit several stand-out performances in the movie's large (and talent heavy) ensemble.

Trimmed from three to two hours, the movie version of Osage County also benefits from the tart humor in Letts's screenplay.

Moreover, director John Wells, known mostly for great TV work such as ER and The West Wing, wisely recognizes that his cast and Letts's writing constitute the movie's strongest suit.

A slight alteration to the movie's ending takes a bit of the sting out of Letts's drama, but Wells and cinematographer Adrinao Goldman add at least one dimension that's difficult to capture on stage.

They make it clear that the drama emanates from the flat desolations of the Oklahoma landscape. This sense of place serves as sturdy foundation for a caustic view of an American family steeped in bitter discord.

The story begins when the family's poet father Beverly (Sam Shepard) vanishes from home, leaving his embittered, pill-popping wife Vi (Meryl Streep) to browbeat the three grown daughters she summons in the wake of her husband's unexplained absence.

Julia Roberts's Barbara arrives with her estranged husband (Ewan McGregor) and her teen-age daughter (Abigail Breslin). Julianne Nicholson plays Ivy, the daughter who stayed behind and has become her mother's caretaker. Juliette Lewis portrays Karen, the wayward daughter who brings her fiancé (Dermot Mulroney) with her for the visit.

Additional characters include Vi's Sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale); her husband Charles (Chris Cooper); and their grown son, known to the others as Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Streep provides the centerpiece for this deranged family table. Her Vi, a woman suffering from mouth cancer, spews vitriol along with cigarette smoke. She's one of those cruel people who views her venomous attacks as necessary examples of truth telling.

In reality, Vi isn't quite so courageous: She's a woman with a mean streak as wide as the Oklahoma flatlands, one of those people who feels cheated by life and refuses to take it lying down.

Sporting a wig that covers Vi's chemo-assaulted hair, Streep gives the kind of showy performance that demands attention, but her's is not the best work in Osage County.

For that, you need to look to look to Martindale, whose Mattie Fae has a totally lived-in feel. The same goes for Cooper: His Charles is given one of the play's more moving moments. In the face of so much craziness, he becomes a spokesman for simple decency.

Equally good are Roberts as the daughter with guts enough to stand up to her mother, and Nicholson, whose character acquires unexpected strength as the movie progresses. Lewis might be the weakest of the sisters, but when the material calls for Karen to have her moment, she delivers.

Misty Upham appears as the Native American housekeeper hired by Beverly to care for Vi. She's used by Letts as the play's one stabilizing presence.

Wells finds touching moments amid the comic clangor, which -- on screen -- tends to be overwhelmed by a slew of late-picture revelations. There's screwed-up, and then there's "too damned screwed up," a condition of which Osage County becomes an unfortunate example.

Still, a lunch scene packs plenty of comic punch, and there's enough fine acting here to keep August: Osage County on the map -- if not to make it one of the year's most highly regarded destinations.

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