TORONTO - Right around Christmas, arguably the high season for family dysfunction, moviegoers will get a chance to compare their clans with the calamitous Westons of Oklahoma in the drama "August: Osage County."
They may be thankful they don't have a mother like Violet, Meryl Streep's pill-popping, viper-tongued matriarch. Or they may find shades of themselves in Barb, Julia Roberts's bitter daughter who bristles at Violet's barbs and wallows in a world of unfulfilled promise.
Then there is the alcoholic poet of a father, the old-maid sister, the flighty daughter, the cowed cousin, the pot-smoking teen, the philandering husband and the sleazy boyfriend. Only the wise uncle and maid are somewhat normal in this film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts.
It was a big challenge to squeeze a three-hour, two-intermission play into a two-hour film, Letts told reporters on Tuesday, the morning after "August: Osage County" had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
But, as one of the most buzzed about films going into Toronto, "August: Osage County" garnered some positive early reviews. Perhaps more importantly for the film backed by the Weinstein Company and top producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov, it generated a good dose of Oscar speculation at the festival, which is known to be a launching pad for the awards season.
Variety chief film critic Scott Foundas called it a "splendid film version of playwright Tracy Letts' acid-tongued Broadway triumph." Guardian critic Catherine Shoard was less generous, giving it two out of five stars.
The film has a Christmas release date in US theaters, a propitious time for films with Oscar aspirations.
'Choke her in the next way'
Oscar nomination buzz surrounds Streep and Roberts, two previous Best Actress winners who team up for the first time in their careers. Streep won the Best Actress Oscar in 2012 for her portrayal of the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in "Iron Lady."
Roberts, who won the Oscar for her 2000 role as Erin Brockovich, said playing opposite Streep was "the best acting experience of my life."
After years of scant contact, the suicide of Violet's husband and Barb's father (Sam Shepherd) brings them back together along with the extended family. The two women are at each other's throats, with a cancer-stricken and often delusional Violet relentlessly going for Barb's emotional jugular.
"It was intimidating, certainly, to be in these scenes with her and choking her and things like that - it was not how I pictured it going in my mind all these years," said Roberts.
After long, sweaty days filming in a remote part of northern Oklahoma, they would make peace at nightly encounters with the cast at Streep's house.
"There was always a hug and kiss and an 'I love you,' and that was the elixir that I needed to come in the next day and climb over the next table to choke her in the next way," Roberts said.
In addition to the two Hollywood A-listers, the cast brims with notable names like Benedict Cumberbatch, Ewan McGregor, Abigail Breslin and Juliette Lewis.
One of the most memorable scenes is a tense 19-minute dinner with the entire family around the table, in which Violet holds court, spewing vituperative verdicts on her disappointing family. It took 20 pages of script and three and a half days to shoot.
"When we first started rehearsing it, Meryl looked at me at the point in which I said we were going to stop and she gave me a wink and she kept going," said director John Wells.
"Everybody else ... was just trying to keep up with Meryl, who just kept going. I think she went for almost the entire scene."
Roberts interjected: "Story of our lives, keeping up with Meryl."