A lot of critics have been very kind to this movie. I think they saw a different movie than I did. “Wickedly funny,” I think a few said. Take it from me, there is not one funny moment in this entire movie.
I disliked this movie so much that, figuring I must have missed something, I went and saw the darn thing again – it was even worse the second time.
Please remember that two actresses from this movie got Oscar nominations. Meryl Streep for Best Actress and Julia Roberts for Best Supporting Actress. Did Meryl really need another Oscar nod, her 18th? No, ,she did not and she did not deserve an Oscar nomination for the role she played in this movie. Julia Roberts at least deserved positive recognition for her role, not an Oscar nod, but even I could say a few nice things about it. Read on a bit.
It’s August, meaning it’s hellishly hot on the Oklahoma plains and nobody ever thinks about air conditioning, they just complain about the heat. The movie opens with Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), a weary old man, in his office, as he introduces his nasty, drug addled, cancer-stricken wife Violet (Meryl Streep) to the young woman, (Misty Upham), an American Indian, whom he has hired as her caretaker. Violet falls all over herself, goofy on drugs, insults the young woman and snarls some nasty epithets.
Later, it seems, understandably, Beverly, a famous poet and a more famous drunk, disappears. Violet does a bunch of stuff we don’t find out about until later, and then calls in the female relatives to be with her during this missing-husband crisis. She calls her sister Mattie (Margo Martindale), who is heavier than Violet but equally obnoxious. She is always berating her only child, a nice but very meek young man named Little Charles (Bernard Cumberbatch). Her meek but decent husband, Big Charles (Chris Cooper,) has just about had enough of his wife’s mistreatment of his son, whom he loves deeply. (We’ll find out why Mom is so mean later.)
Violet and Beverly had three daughters. Nice and meek Ivy Weston (Juliann Nicholson), though in her 50s, has decided to stay at home and take care of her mother. A thankless job, but it does allow her to spend more time with Little Charles, with whom she has a growing closeness. (We’ll learn why that is a bad idea later.)
Oldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) arrives with her husband, Bill (a barely recognizable Ewan McGregor,) who is having an affair with a younger woman, so he and Barbara fight viciously all the time. There’s
also teenage daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin), a self-righteous vegetarian who seems to have taken Brat Lessons from her grandmother.
Then in waltzes sister Karen (Julette Lewis), a somewhat likeable dingbat with her newest fiancé, Steve (Dermot Mulroney) in tow. (Never trust a guy who leaves the dinner table to answer his cell phone.) All the sisters are vicious with one another and even more spiteful with Mom (Violet gets no sympathy whatsoever for dying from cancer), nastier with Mom, who actually is more repulsive than all of them rolled into one.
SPOILER: By this time, Sam Shepard hasn’t made one frame of another appearance in the film. Is it possible that he’s done what every one suspects and killed himself? Is it possible this movie has totally hoodwinked me by listing Sam Shepard’s name as a lead actor and then offing him after one scene? Not only possible but true!
So now we are stuck, mostly, with the women in this family, and I can assure you this is not a pretty picture. Meryl Streep tears up the scenery in her one-note drug addict routine. Julia Roberts actually turns in a half-good performance as the oldest daughter who tries to befriend her mother. But it doesn’t matter. You want to kill every woman in this movie, including Julia.
The screenplay is based on a stage play by Tracy Letts, a fact that is always too obvious, to its detriment. A stage play has different timing from a film, so when a film script too heavily relies on a theatrical production, the film suffers. It becomes predictable… every few minutes you can look at your watch and say – “okay, now another awful family secret is about to be revealed—this one (Secret #7 I think) must be about the nature of the relationship between poor Ivy and poor Little Charles – yep, saw that one coming a mile down the road.”
The director, John Wells, whose previous movie in 2010, The Company Men (starring Ben Affleck and Tommy Lee Jones) was pretty good, seems to have been so overwhelmed by the bevy of star power he somehow managed to collect for this film, that he just let actors like Meryl Streep pull out all the stops without telling her to “cool it” every now and then. There’s the true mystery of the film – how did Wells, a director with minimal experience, get all these fine actors to be in a film that was not only a horrible chore to watch, but is never going to make a dime?