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'August: Osage County' possible Oscar bait

| Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, 8:55 p.m.
The Weinstein Co.
(From left) Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep and Julianne Nicholson star in 'August: Osage County.'

“August: Osage County” travels from the stage to the screen with much of its theatricality intact. Too much. For all the scenic prairie panoramas and lived-in look of the big, rural Oklahoma house that is the setting, it still feels like a play.

It's a sharp-tongued melodrama of cruelty, comical cursing, “big scenes” and shocking revelations. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts kept it all in this all-star serving of Oscar bait.

Meryl Streep tosses moderation away as the salty, testy matriarch, Violet Weston, a pill-popping cancer patient who has spoken her mean-spirited mind for so long she can't control her tongue.

“I'm just truth-telling,” she says, laughing off the pained or furious reactions of those who feel her wrath.

We've met the sweetly poetic drinker Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) in the opening scenes. We've seen the bullying he endures. When he disappears and Violet summons her sister (Margo Martindale) and daughters (Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis), we know he's not coming back. Death was just an extreme means of escape.

Menfolk show up, too. There's Charlie (Chris Cooper), who has always joked away Violet's mean streak and winked through the sarcasm it brings out in his own wife, Violet's sister, Mattie Fae (Martindale). “Little Charlie” (Benedict Cumberbatch, showing a vulnerable side) is their clumsy, put-upon son. Dermot Mulroney is Steve, the Ferrari-driving Florida hustler who Karen (Lewis) brings home.

And college professor Bill (Ewan McGregor) may be secretly separated from Barbara (Roberts). But he's there as moral support to his short-tempered, foul-mouthed wife and their messed-up 14-year-old daughter (Abigail Breslin).

Letts wrote wonderful, distinct characters, and the film is so well-cast. The men are thinly drawn clichés, but the women are clever variations on a mean theme. The marvelous exceptions are Karen, who fled the family, and Ivy (Nicholson), who stayed behind — both played as wounded women.

The big, ugly moments come from Violet and her oldest. Streep, pale, with chemo-thinned hair, staggers between bemused incoherence and unbottled rage, lashing out at Barb, the only one to really stand up to her. Roberts, not as grief-stricken as you'd expect, ratchets up the volume to the point where you fear violence. And you fear the daughter she's raising to curse and smoke (at 14) and “truth tell” just like her.

There are tasty, testy-lines and melodramatic flourishes aplenty. Director John Wells (“The Company Men”) presides over this toxic, caustically amusing tale, making it a spectacle we gawk at, slack-jawed in wonder at the depth of the dysfunction. But does it make us feel anything? Not really.

Roger Moore is a staff writer for McClatchy-Tribune News Service.

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