‘August: Osage County’
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By Don Gibble  January 10, 2014 12:00 am

Tracy Letts' Pulitzer and Tony winning play about the unique capacity for cruelty of the modern American family. 

 "August: Osage County", is a juicy steak of a drama marinated in corrosive comedy. Capably directed by John Wells from Letts' compressed screenplay, the film comes in roughly an hour shorter than the play, with no significant loss of incident. 

Pulling back from the heightened reality of the stage muffles some of the savagery of Letts' humor. 

And the play's broader themes are perhaps necessarily sidelined to focus on the human drama.

While it's very much performance-driven, the movie makes some gains in translating the desolate landscape of Oklahoma from imagination to reality. 

The matriarch of the clan is Violet (Meryl Streep), whose overdose of painkillers has been somewhat legitamized by the fact that she has cancer. 

To be specific, cancer of the mouth, a detail her husband Beverly (Sam Shepard) refers to as the punch line. 

Beverly disappears without explanation, prompting Violet to summon their three daughters. 

They arrive on the scene to bolster their mother, whose love comes laced with blunt criticism and humiliation. 

Violet has no filter. Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) is the seemingly mousy one who stayed single and close to home, enduring more than her share of their parents' dysfunction. 

A chip off the old block in terms of her strength, Barbara (Julia Roberts) comes in from Colorado with her estranged husband and weed-smoking 14-year-old daughter. Self-absorbed Karen (Juliette Lewis) arrives from Florida with her fiance.

Whatever secrets these people think they're keeping, Vi lets them know that nobody slips anything by her. 

Worrying news makes way for tragedy, plus a whole string of awkward disclosures, which gives her fewer reasons to hold back. 

Roberts gets stuck with some of the more theatrical dialogue and her role has a less complete arc than in the play, where Barbara's bitterness and disappointment were underscored by the creeping realization that she's more like her mother than she cares to admit. 

Roberts's characterization favors the hardened, brittle side, which is a little one-note at first. 

But the performance grows steadily in stature as she balks at Vi's out-of-control behavior and takes charge of the crisis. 

You will enjoy this film without having seen the play.   

Wells directs the actors smoothly enough in individual scenes, but his work lacks the cohesiveness to really pull all the characters together and convey their shared past.

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