Though it may not seem like it at first glance (check out the trailer below), John Wells’ screen adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play is ideal viewing for anyone dreading a family get-together this week, or any other. Letts’ parade of thoroughly damaged people makes even the Manson Family seem like the Brady Bunch.
At the head of the table is Violet Weston (Meryl Streep, in fine form), matriarch of a Oklahoma clan that has gathered late one stifling summer for the funeral of her husband, long-suffering alcoholic/poet Beverly (Sam Shepard), who after a brief-but-memorable early appearance takes his own life after years of enduring his wife’s epic-scale pill addiction. (“It’s begun to interfere with my drinking,” he offers in summation.) As played by Streep, Violet is an impressively mean and bitter creation, a walking train wreck with a shock of patchy grey hair (the result of chemotherapy for a karmic case of mouth cancer) hidden under frightening wig who shuns natural light like a vampire while sitting in clouds of ill-advised cigarette smoke. A complex person, her secret wounds make us feel for her, but only briefly; every time she opens her mouth, any lingering sympathy quickly evaporates. She’s Miranda Priestly by way of Eugene O’Neill.
The subsequent gathering of people who, at best, share the same gene pool and childhood traumas it both fascinating and uncomfortable to watch unfold, as a series of long-held secrets and resentments bubble to the surface. Short-fused eldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts in one of her best perfs of recent years) arrives with her 14-year-old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) and estranged college professor husband Bill (Ewan McGregor), who’s in the middle of an affair with a student. Her sister Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) dutifully stayed in Oklahoma to tend to their parents and suffered a truncated life for it, while youngest sister Karen (Juliette Lewis) arrives from Florida with her slimy fiancé Steve (Dermot Mulroney); her insistence on finding a bright side to everything reek more of denial than of optimism. Also present are Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (a superb Margo Martindale) and her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper), both of whom are warm if flighty, except for Mattie’s casual callousness towards her own son, Little Charlie (Benedict Cumberbatch).
The tension ripples through each scene until it hits a tipping point in the story’s infamous dinner, setting off a cascading series of personal crises that won’t be revealed here. A couple of the twists border on soap opera melodramatics, but fortunately they aren’t over-played by Wells or Letts (who wrote the screenplay as well). A full 90 minutes was trimmed for the transition from stage to screen, but none of the impact was lost.
The movie is wholly an actors’ vehicle, and the cast is largely superb, though Mulroney, Breslin, and especially McGregor are underused. Cumberbatch, Cooper, Martindale, and Nicholson shine in their more nuanced roles, but ultimately it is Streep and Roberts who rule the roost with their give-and-take sparring practice as the vicious mother and resentful daughter who has more in common with her than she would care to admit. The two compliment each other nicely, with Streep occasionally going over the top as the brutally honest (and often just plain brutal) Violet while a de-glamorized Roberts is more restrained self-assured as the daughter who’s had enough.
By the time it’s all over, everyone has fled — literally and figuratively — from the family home and their miserable pasts after a caustic weekend that for us has been equal parts, bitter, brutal, witty, and eye-opening.