Meryl Streep merely inhabits another complicated character (tossing them off with impressive regularity), but for viewers it’s another jaw dropping master class in classic acting.  La Streep has compiled seventeen Oscar nominations (an enviable achievement), built on eccentric, esoteric, off beat characters.  Here she plays a harridan from hell.  Similar performances by Elizabeth Taylor in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf,” and Bette Davis in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” come to mind.

Streep gives life to Violet Weston, a pill popping addict spitting vitriolic vulgar-laced sarcasm at members of her family who have gathered for a reunion at her Oklahoma home.  To say there’s disunion in the family circle is somewhat mild, familial rot has set in.

Violet suffers from advanced cancer, her husband Beverly (the always watchable Sam Shepard) drinks, and their three daughters, Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis) are emotionally damaged. Bev’s refuge is booze and books, a sanctuary from a lengthy and testy marriage as Violet curses and staggers about the house, taking massive amounts of drugs and booze for her painful mouth cancer.

With the sudden disappearance of Beverly, Violet’s sister Mattie Fae Aiken (Margo Martindale) and her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper) arrive to console the sickly woman. They’re joined by Violet’s daughter Barbara, her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor), and their 14 year-old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin), all from Colorado.  Also present is Violet’s other daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), the quiet sibling who has a hidden romantic interest as well as contempt for being the only one to stay close (and therefore responsible) to her mother.

The gathering of all the Weston women in a single location sets off verbal sparks.  They can’t help but argue and claw at one another.  Violet’s moodiness, fueled by generous amounts of medication, promotes gossip leading to bitter insults. The situation becomes intensified with the discovery of Beverly’s body, apparently having drowned himself out on his boat.  Karen the third daughter and her fiancé Steve (Dermot Mulroney), arrive from Florida, to attend the funeral. Charlie’s timid son, “Little” Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), emotionally upset about missing the ceremony, joins the family circle later.  As the extended family sits for a meal, the socializing becomes acidic, sincerity is paper thin, and derisive inner feelings are impulsively aimed at the assembled who are not expecting a volley of verbal abuse led by the ranting, irritated Violet.  Raised objections to eviscerating commentary on her daughter’s looks are shot down and mercilessly reflected back. Delicate suggestions that she refrains from airing the family’s dirtiest laundry over dinner is countered with eyebrow-singeing bursts of criticism.

Streep (and her character), rule on screen while Roberts displays a less appealing style and attitude playing a stringent, controlling, and permanently miffed woman. It’s a refreshing deviation from her typical, romantic, anticipated personas.  Grim and stripped of her trademark killer smile, Roberts is even more compelling as the angry Barbara, who by necessity has evolved into a worthy opponent for her selfish, strong-willed mother, possibly to the detriment of her own happiness.

None of the numerous parts are sympathetic.  Violet’s wrath extends to almost everyone, but especially directed towards Barbara, who clearly loathes every moment she’s in the house.  It’s a cinematic treat to watching Streep and Roberts go at each other though you wouldn’t want to re-enact their battles in your own home.  Streep is marvelous and terrifying, spewing her venom to all gathered at her dinner table, calculating their secrets and then jabbing them with poisonous verbal darts at just the right moment; you can see her making mental notes on every hidden weakness. Emmy winner Martindale and Oscar winner Cooper are also outstanding, as a long-married couple whose union grows strained in the presence of these battles (she has shared Violet’s miserable childhood and bears wounds of her own; he’s baffled that everyone can’t just be nice to each other). But there’s not a weak performance in the bunch, though the choice of Cumberbatch as Little Charles feels slightly off; he’s a bit too handsome to be believable as a frightened, socially inept oddball.  Cumberbatch can be fully appreciated as the title character in the British television series updating of “Sherlock.”

Playwright Tracy Letts won the Pulitzer Prize for the stage, however his big screen adaptation narrows the focus but opening it up beyond the claustrophobia of the house interior.  The sets are limited but there’s a great deal of incendiary dialogue. The abrasive language and hateful remarks leads to a familial frenzy of physical grappling and emotional revelations.  As a character-driven drama, the film may seem uneventful and boring, but bear in mind it’s a talking heads scenario with an absorbing story.  Violet is a maternal monster on an outrageous scale, but she is also one of the most spellbinding characters What Bruce Willis is to action flicks, Streep is to verbal heroics.

By: Alex Reynolds

Providing a Fresh Perspective for Burlington and Hamilton.

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