One of the first things you'll hear in "August: Osage County," the star-studded film version of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer-winning play, is an unhappily married writer, Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), talking about life, loss and T.S. Eliot. But his foul-mouthed wife, Violet (Meryl Streep), interrupts with a suggestion. It includes three vulgarities and a farm animal.
Well, so much for subtext. Everything is spoken, and in the crudest possible way, in "August: Osage County," directed by John Wells ("The Company Men") from Letts' screenplay. A Southern Gothic tale transplanted to Oklahoma, it centers on the wretched Weston family, which convenes for dinner at the home of Violet. What they're in for is a two-hour onslaught of extreme profanity, vicious insults and verbal violence, much of it launched by Violet, a pill-addicted shrew suffering from -- what else? -- mouth cancer.
Showing up for abuse are Violet's daughters: brittle Barbara (Julia Roberts), on the verge of alienating her husband (Ewan McGregor) and daughter (Abigail Breslin); flighty Karen (Juliette Lewis), who brings her latest Lothario (Dermot Mulroney); and apron-strung Ivy (Julianne Nicholson). Ivy plans to escape Violet's clutches by marrying a dim bulb nicknamed Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), who in turn is the hapless son of checked-out Charles Aiken (Chris Cooper) and the incomprehensibly cruel Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale). Misty Upham, as an American Indian hired to tend to Violet, plays the mute, wise savage.
Letts seems to be trying to one-up Tennessee Williams or Eugene O'Neill, but his method consists of placing the emotional climax at the beginning, then trying to maintain the intensity by adding obscenities. In real life, issues tend to simmer between people, but here they scream like a boiling kettle from the start and never stop. The resulting dialogue and characters feel so false that not even a master like Streep can make us care.
What, by the way, does T.S. Eliot have to do with any of this? A better reference might have been John Keats. Ugliness is truth, truth ugliness; that is all ye know in "August: Osage County," and all ye need to know.
PLOT Members of a dysfunctional Oklahoma family gather for a particularly unpleasant dinner.
CAST Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Benedict Cumberbatch
PLAYING AT Lincoln Square 13 and Union Square Stadium 14 in Manhattan. Opens locally Jan. 10.
BOTTOM LINE Tracy Letts' acclaimed play arrives on screen as a nonstop onslaught of playground profanity and sputtered insults. Relentlessly shrill and almost instantly boring, this may be the first truly bad movie of Streep's career.