Every gong season gives us moments to relish, and 2014 is no exception. Case in point? Julia Roberts telling Meryl Streep to “Eat the fish, bitch!” in this juicy slice of Southern melodrama which sees an all-star cast tear strips off each other on the occasion of a funeral-mandated family reunion.
Streep is Violet, the cancer-stricken yet still formidable matriarch of a deeply dysfunctional Oklahoma clan, thrown back together by the death of her hubby Beverly (Sam Shepard).
Roberts, meanwhile, is Barbara, the oldest and most bitter of three sisters whose return to their parents’ abode whips up a hornets’ nest of resentment, recrimination and long-buried secrets.
Based on a Pulitzer-winning 2008 play by Tracy Killer Joe Letts, A:OC exudes an air of studied theatricality no amount of sun-drenched exteriors can dispel.
But then it could hardly be otherwise in a film whose centrepiece is a 20-minute dinner scene, faithfully transplanted from stage to screen by director John Wells with all its hilarity, claustrophobia and escalating tension intact.
It’s a magnificent set-piece, a broiling banquet of bad manners that has Violet hurl malicious barbs at everyone around her. (“Nobody slips anything by me!” she glowers.)
Yet it’s one that comes at a price, there being little else to match its venomous ferocity. The acting obviously compensates, with Margo Martindale exceptional as Violet’s vindictive sister, Chris Cooper superb as her husband, and Julianne Nicholson affecting as the deluded sibling still cradling hopes of happiness.
Even in this tight-knit ensemble, though, there are some weak links: Ewan McGregor and Benedict Cumberbatch stick out like sore thumbs with their underwritten characters and even dodgier accents.
A:OC, then, is a movie with failings as well as strengths. But when it’s good, as it often is, it’s very fine indeed.
This classy adap of a much-garlanded stage play will appeal to discerning audiences who can tolerate unpleasant characters with potty mouths if they're played by Oscar winners.