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August: Osage County

Readers of a certain age may recall a recurring character Jon Lovitz used to play on Saturday Night Live, known (in the style of that show once they figured out the value of easily identifiable recurring characters) as the Master Thespian.

There is an awful lot of Master Thesping in August: Osage County, imported to the screen from the stage, having won a Pulitzer Prize for author Tracey Letts. Letts himself is an actor—you may have seen him as the senator who takes over the CIA on the recent season of Homeland. He won a Tony Award a George in the last revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which I mention because that monument to conjugal laceration comes to mind often here. So does the work of others Letts has described as inspirations: Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, and Jim Thompson. You have been warned.

The story is centered in a mansion in Oklahoma, where the family gathers after the paterfamilias (Sam Shepherd, never one to overstay his welcome in a film) has disappeared. Here they confront their mother Violet, who came from a hard upbringing and never lets anyone forget it. Suffering from cancer and addicted to every pill available at the local pharmacy, she sees no reason to restrain her low opinion of everyone in the family.

Violet is played by Meryl Streep at her Streepiest, Most of you can now finish reading, having either called your friends to meet you at the first matinee performance on Friday or said to yourself, “You couldn’t push me to see that with a snowplow.” To the rest of you I will say that the large and very able cast also includes Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, and Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems to have been in every third film released this year. All perform prodigiously in a plot that tosses in every possible human foible (by the time it got to incest I was too numb to care). None of them play characters you would want to spend any time with; even the best of them join the family sport of psychic cannibalism in the film’s centerpiece, a funeral dinner that was apparently funny on stage but which just grinds on painfully onscreen. It’s camp material treated as a prestige production for awards season: Better had it been directed by John Waters with a cast of his Baltimore irregulars alongside Streep.

Watch the trailer for August: Osage County

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