Daddy’s dead and Mama’s dying — who’s got a will?

by Mark Burger

The acting’s the thing in August:

Osage County, a star-studded adaptation of the Tony- and Pultizer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts. This high-voltage portrayal of a verbose and magnificently dysfunctional Oklahoma family is truly an actor’s showcase for an ensemble cast headed by Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, both in excellent form.

Members of the Weston clan are reunited when poet patriarch Beverly (Sam Shepard) commits suicide. As if that development wasn’t devastating enough, matriarch Violet (Streep) is herself ill with cancer. Beverly and Violet had three daughters: Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), the dutiful one who stayed close to home; Karen (Juliette Lewis), the flighty and flirtatious one; and Barbara (Roberts), the oldest and clearly angriest of the three.

The family gathering, which includes Violet’s sister (Margo Martindale), brother-in-law (Chris Cooper) and their son (Benedict Cumberbatch), Barbara’s teenaged daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin), Karen’s latest fling (Dermot Mulroney) and Johnna the maid (Misty Upham), is fraught with simmering conflicts, festering family secrets and pent-up rage. When the explosion occurs, as it inevitably must, the family is further fragmented and traumatized. August: Osage County offers no pat solutions to the Westons’ problems, and indeed those problems are further aggravated to the breaking point.

Much as the females dominate the Weston clan, the actresses here dominate the proceedings, although Cooper has some wonderful moments. McGregor does his best to flesh out a sketchy (and somewhat obvious) role, Mulroney is amusing as a blatant cad, Cumberbatch is sincere but miscast, and Shepard’s is essentially a cameo appearance, although it’s nice having him around even if only for a few minutes.

The peerless Streep plays a mother whose monstrous behavior is furthered by her powers of observation. She knows exactly what’s going on, past and present, which infuriates Barbara even further. That Streep is excellent is no surprise, but Roberts gives one of her best performances here, giving back as good as she gets.

Given the cast and literary pedigree, August: Osage County is something of a can’t-miss proposition. Indeed, it doesn’t, although attempts by director John Wells (only his second feature, following 2010’s The Company Men) to “open up” the play, mostly in outdoor driving scenes — which are themselves confined — don’t entirely succeed to that end.

In the long run, that hardly matters with the potent ensemble on hand. It’s not exactly a pleasure spending time with the Weston family — more often it’s exhausting — but it’s truly a pleasure watching this fine cast at work.