Mother Flay I: As a toxic mom, Meryl Streep throws down.
Mother Flay I: As a toxic mom, Meryl Streep throws down.

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In August: Osage County, Meryl Streep spews vicious insults at her loved ones for almost two hours, pausing occasionally to pop pills and dance to Eric Clapton’s “Lay Down Sally.” In this ensemble drama about a dysfunctional Oklahoma family—based on the Pulitzer Prize–winning play by Tracy Letts, who also wrote the screenplay—the emotional intensity is perpetually cranked to 11. That is, until it goes to 12, as it does during a dining-room-floor brawl between Streep and Julia Roberts (Karen Silkwood v. Erin Brockovich!) that, while insane, isn’t even the most over-the-top moment in the movie.

All those wild histrionics make it easy to dismiss August: Osage County. So do a few other things, including some second-half revelations that nearly turn the film into the cinematic equivalent of a V.C. Andrews novel. Yet in spite of all the mouth-foaming turmoil and seamy plot twists, August still manages some moments of memorable raw power.

Which brings us to Meryl Streep. As Violet Weston—the drug-addicted, cancer-suffering matriarch of a family whose patriarch (Sam Shepard) has disappeared—Streep is the maddening, magnificent bull in August: Osage County’s china shop. “I’m just truth-telling,” she declares during a 20-minute dinner scene in which she announces she’s stripping all three of her grown daughters (Roberts, Juliette Lewis, and Julianne Nicholson) of their father’s inheritance money and tells her brother-in-law (the marvelously gentle Chris Cooper) to “blow it out [his] ass.” She sputters and cackles, threatens and maligns—it’s so much that it’s natural to conclude that it’s too much.

Yet, to this critic at least, every choice Streep makes feels grounded in reality. Some might assume that no real woman could possibly carry on in such thunderously excessive tones. But I’ve known some thunderously excessive women and let me tell you: Streep gets it right. As Barbara, Violet’s favorite and, therefore, most beleaguered child, Roberts serves as a formidable foil for Streep, always keeping her anger on low simmer until her mother throws fresh salt in the water and kicks it up to high boil. Most of the cast, but especially Cooper and Margo Martindale, digs into this material with an admirable commitment to authenticity.

The problem with August: Osage County ultimately comes down to the story, or at least the way it’s told in movie form. I’ve never seen the play, but given the fact that theatricality, by nature, tends to play better in the theater, I suspect it’s more effective in that medium. As a film, everything—plot, thematic scope, visuals—has to be shrunk. As a result, director John Wells turns this into more of a character study than a sweeping, acerbic commentary on the American family. If you don’t like the characters in August: Osage County, you may not be very interested in that study, especially if you can already guess where it leads: to dark, unpleasant places and, in all likelihood, yet another Oscar nomination for Streep, who, even in a movie that doesn’t always work, remains a truth-teller to the end.