Violet (Merryl Streep) is a pill addicted career sufferer. Her husband (Sam Shepard) is an alcoholic poet who kills himself. Her three daughters are Barbara with husband (Ewan McGregor), Ivy, and Karen (with boyfriend). They turn up for Shepard’s funeral. Benedict Cumberbatch misses the funeral but turns up for the wake. Barbara also brings her teenage daughter. Mattie Fae (Margot Martindale) is Violet’s sister and she brings her husband. There are arguments and people go home…
At the centre of this “Who’s Afraid of Meryl Streep” is of course, Meryl Streep who is superbly bitchy to everyone. Did Sam Shepherd jump into the lake or very sensibly get lost? It’s Sam Shepherd’s fate to play the ageing Hemingway patriarch of frontier artistic America, even when he’s carrying a gun you expect some philosophy to go with it. Enduring Violet is above and beyond the call of duty. Streep is sometimes like Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid? and sometimes like Vivien Leigh: all amateur psychodrama played by method actor’s school. You do get weary of her self centred vileness. The family members stoically have to wait to be patronisingly dismissed for their self absorbed dejection. Because of her career she wears a black wig but this seems more like a quirkily interesting stage prop. I kept wondering when she was going to take it off and flog somebody with it. Violet’s self revelation is all speechy performance rather than something natural. Scripted by playwright Tracey Letts, we feel like we’ve been dragged on to its stage rather than watching real people hammer out family problems. Violet mercilessly mocks Benedict Cumberbatch’s character. In this film his fish mouth looks even more lugubrious as he reveals his incestuous attraction for the woman who turns out to be his sister. Could this film sustain any fascination if it were just about ordinary people venting their tensions around the dinner table? Of course not, that would be too close to soap opera, things have got to be melodramatic and hokeyly colourful.
The best lines in the film are at the beginning when Julia Roberts and Ewan McGregor talk about the terrifying emptiness of the Oklahoma prairies. Barbara thinks it would be better if it were returned to native Americans. This is the same wonder at it we saw in Nebraska and Inside Lewyn Davis. Naturally, it’s all set on a hot day so the weather can match their passion. A pretty corny film, though as ever, Meryl Streep acts well.