You know what's great? Meryl Streep has gotten old.
I understand if she may not be as ecstatic about this as I am. But if the passage of time allows our greatest screen actress to play more roles like “August: Osage County's” Violet Weston, she surely must be a little gratified.
All Streep's formidable technique, thunderous power and her lightning bolt-precise emotional range is deployed in long, delectably disturbing stretches as the raging matriarch of a deeply dysfunctional Oklahoma clan. Addicted to painkillers and a life's worth of resentments, Violet also suffers from mouth cancer — and boy, does she take every advantage of that metaphor. The woman says the most awful things to her children, their significant others and her briefly-glimpsed husband (Sam Shepard).
“I'm just telling the truth” is this mad grandma's — who could eat Johnny Knoxville for lunch — repeated refrain. The most infuriating yet interesting thing about Violet is that she's right; nasty and narcotized as her statements can be, they draw real blood because they're so honest. And so funny.
That isn't just because Streep serves her lines along with expertly timed double takes, darting glances and the like. The material, which Tracy Letts adapted for the screen from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, is a trove of zingers, asides, creative cussing and wicked witty one-liners.
Good as its laughs are, though, “Osage” is no comedy. It's about a lot of very unhappy people doing the best and the worst that they can. There ain't much of the former to go around; the latter's a cornucopia.
The rest of the ensemble is just as good as Streep, an odds-on improbability that speaks to the wisdom of having “West Wing” and “ER” veteran John Wells direct the movie. Julia Roberts, who plays the eldest — and most like her mother — of Violet's three daughters, has simply never given a better performance.
Everyone else is at the top of their game, too: Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis as Violet's other adult children; Margo Martindale as her protective (except for that one time... ) sister; Chris Cooper as a kind brother-in-law; Benedict Cumberbatch as his dim-bulb son; pure professionals Dermot Mulroney and Ewan McGregor serving extraneous male purposes; and a very convincing Abigail Breslin as teen growing up too fast for anyone's comfort.
Put all these folks around a table with Streep's Violet at its head and you get what may be the finest dinner battles ever recorded.
Misty Upham is an island of calm (except for that one time... ) in this maelstrom as the family's new servant. and a bit of an unfortunate Magic Indian kind of character. You never get too far away from the fact “Osage” is an adaptation from the stage, either. But even at its most contrived and overarticulate, Letts' writing is pure pleasure. And no matter how horrible Violet behaves, you just bask in Streep's joy at going as far as she can without ever losing magisterial control.