**1/2 (out of four)
How twisted to release a bleak drama of family members treating each other terribly within shouting distance of the holidays, when families are inclined to head to the movies together. Unless "August: Osage County" is meant to make people feel better about their own dramas that hopefully pale in comparison to the anguish on screen.
I don't think that's the idea. Adapted by Chicagoan Tracy Letts from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play that debuted at Steppenwolf in 2007, "August" presents a frustratingly hopeless view of human behavior. Sure, when it's 108 degrees in small-town Oklahoma, it may be difficult to feel comfortable and behave pleasantly. Yet as captured by director John Wells ("The Company Men"), this story (which I did not see on stage) seems cynical rather than profound. I was intrigued by thematic curiosities without ever feeling emotionally invested in these people, who seem like characters in a play rather than believable, tragic representatives of the human condition.
Many scattered members of the Weston clan return after the patriarch (Sam Shepard) disappears. It does not escape his wife, Violet (Meryl Streep), that the family didn't come running when she was diagnosed with cancer. And she doesn't hold back any of her opinions when it comes to her daughters Barbara (Julia Roberts), who long ago moved away, Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), who stuck around and sacrificed for her parents, and Karen (Juliette Lewis), whose revolving door of men has led to an engagement to Steve (Dermot Mulroney), who speeds around in a red sports car while blasting "Livin' La Vida Loca."
Immediately "August: Osage County" (which also co-stars Chris Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch and Abigail Breslin) offers maximum drama, betrayals and secrets, all while forming what should be known as Acting Blur. Letts' script does raise numerous open-ended questions: How much do children owe their parents? Are men and women actually, biologically destined to drift down different paths? And, uh, are people really so cruel and selfish toward their loved ones all the time? (No.)
Ultimately the film offers unresolved feelings and storylines cooking in a stew of zesty dialogue, and a tone that uneasily wavers between darkly funny and oppressively miserable. For the Westons, family may feel more like a curse than a blessing, but viewers have the easier choice of spending life without them.
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