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Film review: ‘August: Osage County’ is nothing but a yell-fest

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Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep and Julianne Nicholson take turns shouting and lobbying for an Oscar in the obnoxious August: Osage County.

It sounds like a surefire recipe for an awards bonanza: Start with acclaimed source material (the 2007 Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play August: Osage County by Tracy Letts), adapted by its original writer. Hand it to an experienced director (TV veteran John Wells, whose first film was 2010’s well-reviewed The Company Men). Recruit an all-star cast, including six Oscar winners and/or nominees (Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Sam Shepard). Give the finished product a release courtesy of the awards-mongering Weinstein Company. Prepare tuxedos for Oscar night.

One of the biggest problems with August: Osage County, however, is that everyone involved seems to be angling for nothing more than awards gold, without regard for the best way to tell the story or to adapt Letts’ play from stage to screen. All of those lauded actors won their awards for good reason, but none of them are at their best here, and in some cases they’re at their worst. Streep and Roberts give what may be the most overstated performances of their careers as a toxic mother-daughter pair in the titular Oklahoma county. When the patriarch (Shepard) of the Weston family dies suddenly, his wife Violet (Streep), a cancer-afflicted drug addict, presides over the world’s most unpleasant family reunion, bringing together 10 contentious relatives under one roof.

The unwieldy cast of characters converges on the sprawling family home, where they proceed to spend the entire movie yelling at each other and poring over long-seething resentments. The movie’s centerpiece is an interminable dinner scene in which the acting becomes increasingly histrionic, as if someone placed an Oscar in the middle of the table and all the actors decided to fight over it. Wells lets his actors run wild with Letts’ script, which is full of opportunities for shameless showboating. Whatever emotional resonance might exist on the page is subsumed by the sheer volume of the performances, and the dark humor comes off as mean-spirited and disingenuous instead of funny. If anybody ends up with an Oscar for this movie, it will only be because voters were bludgeoned into submission.

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