IN AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, Meryl Streep finally goes full monster. As Violet Weston, the cancer-ridden matriarch of the Weston clan, she sucks cigarette smoke through a mouth full of cancer and spits poison at her nearest and dearest. When her husband disappears after one of their routinely vicious fights, she summons her three daughters home to her side, setting the stage for an epic, toxic, and thoroughly entertaining family showdown.
Violet has a pill addiction and a mean streak, and her daughters have coping mechanisms: Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) is withdrawn and self-sufficient; ditzy Karen (Juliette Lewis) bounces from man to man; and while Barbara (Julia Roberts) seems to have the strongest claim to normalcy, she's also the most like her mother. (This is a bad thing.) As the three sisters try to figure out what to do with their sick, aging mom, Violet rails furiously against their intervention, forcing the sisters to confront the limits of their own relationships.
If you require movie characters to be "likeable," give this one a pass; the few tolerable characters (played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Chris Cooper) are steamrolled by the oversized personalities of the Weston women. These people are awful: They say terrible things to each other, make each other unhappy on purpose, and have elevated passive-aggression and vindictiveness to an art form.
Often, miserable characters make for miserable movies. But Osage County, which was adapted from Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning play, is in the Tennessee Williams school of storytelling: not because we're dealing with a cast of seriously dysfunctional, heat-addled alcoholics, but because of the sheer, melodramatic pleasure it offers. When Meryl and Julia go at it, it's like watching two drag queens fight—wigs are strewn. Letts' screenplay is surprisingly funny, and the cast delivers all-in performances, anchored by Streep's ferociously monstrous turn. Likeable? No. Perversely fun? Absolutely.