Meryl Streep, left, Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis Star in the well-acted comedy drama 'August: Osage County.' (Claire Folger)
“August: Osage County” is just about as mean as a movie can be.
Which isn’t to say it’s not a lot of fun. With its snarling wit and crackerjack cast, it offers the best time you could have with a disastrously dysfunctional family gathered for a funeral in the middle of nowhere.
Just be aware that by the time the movie’s over, there may be a shredded, bleeding, dark thing where your soul used to be.
The chief person responsible for that shredding would be writer Tracy Letts (“Killer Joe,” “Bug”), who adapts his own play here. Letts loves manic people, twisted situations and barbed lines that cut with glee and he’s disturbingly good at delivering all three.
Which is why a cast like this can be assembled. Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dermot Mulroney, Abigail Breslin, Juliette Lewis, Ewan McGregor, Margo Martindale ... obviously the talent was lining up for a shot at this script.
Streep plays Violet Weston, a pill-popping, cancer-ridden matriarch sharing life with her purposely alcoholic husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard), who — after some extremely choice words at the film’s beginning — dies.
This brings Violet’s none-too-stable grown children back together. There’s Barbara (Roberts), with her unfaithful husband (McGregor) and snotty teen daughter (Breslin). There’s the much-traveled Karen (Lewis) and her latest sleazy conquest (Mulroney). And then there’s the quiet Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), who’s stayed close to home and helped deal with Violet.
Adding to the fun are Violet’s sweet-and-sour sister, Mattie Fae (Martindale); her patient husband, Charlie (Cooper); and their awkward offspring, Little Charles (Cumberbatch).
Put these characters and their myriad problems, jealousies and plain wrong impulses in one house, then add booze and drugs and ugly history, and you have a basketful of venomous snakes biting at one another.
There are two great problems director John Wells (best known as the TV producer behind “The West Wing,” “E.R.” and “Shameless”) has to wrestle with here.
The first is the staginess factor that accompanies any play adaptation. The second is the sheer awfulness of these people.
He reins in the awfulness (just barely) with a few nice touches that let the film breathe. The staging — well, there’s only so much you can do when most of the action takes place within one house and everybody talks as if they’ve just walked out of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Still, there are many darkly ecstatic moments here, from Violet’s horrible attack on just about everybody at the funeral dinner table, to Barbara’s repeated confrontations with her mother (physical and verbal), to Mattie Fae’s uncomfortable revelations and even Karen’s mindless babbling.
Streep is freaking Streep. You’d think nothing would surprise anymore, but her fierce, drugged, dying monster here is something to behold. And Roberts has never been better, bringing her own surprising icepick to the fight. Overall, the ensemble is every bit as good as you’d expect.
Yes, these people are very good at being very bad. Whoever decided to release this movie near the holidays must have a mean streak of their own. On the other hand, if you’re just recovering from some contentious family dinners, this is guaranteed to make your family look like absolute peace on Earth.
'August: Osage County'
Rated R for language including sexual references, and for drug material
Running time: 121 minutes