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Will 'Osage County' pans hurt Meryl Streep's Oscar chances?

Oscar voting begins online Friday, though many Motion Picture Academy members who didn't register for online balloting received paper versions beginning late last week. Some diligent members have already made their selections and mailed them in.

The timing isn't particularly good for anyone associated with "August: Osage County," which opened Friday in Los Angeles and New York to reviews not normally associated with an Oscar contender. A.O. Scott, writing in the New York Times, observed that the movie's plot, which includes adultery, divorce and incest, was "secondary to the spectacle the actors make of themselves."

Scott goes on to call the film a "thespian cage match." "Within a circumscribed space, a bunch of unquestionably talented performers is assembled with no instructions other than to top one another," he continues. "One twitchy confession must be excelled by another. The same with smoldering, sarcastic speeches, explosions of tears, wistful jags of nostalgia and imperious gazes of disgust."

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Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan is equally unimpressed, likening "Osage County" to "that branch of reality TV where dysfunctional characters, whether active or passive, make a public display of their wretched lives."

"If you think your family is difficult, seeing the Westons will set you straight," Turan writes. "Unless you are actually related to them, however, caring about these people is out of the question."

[Update, 6:40 PST, Jan. 3: Since this article was written, more positive reviews have been logged, including the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern, who called both Streep’s and Roberts’ performances “marvelous” and Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers who called the actresses “a hoot.” The film has also earned an audience grade of A- on CinemaScore.]

The negative reviews may have repercussions beyond the movie's box office, redefining the lead actress Oscar race. Since "August: Osage County" first screened at the Toronto Film Festival in September, it had been assumed that Meryl Streep, playing the movie's messed-up matriarch, would win yet another Oscar nomination for her scenery-chewing work in the film. The thinking: She's Streep. She has been nominated 17 times. You think the academy is going to ignore a speech-slurring, pill-popping, profanity-filled performance?

Maybe it will. Yes, feting Streep this time of year seems to be a habit with the academy, even when the work in question falls short of excellence. But with "August: Osage County," Streep's legend, which casts a long shadow over everything around it, could work against her.

"Remember Amy Adams in 'Julie and Julia'? Anne Hathaway in 'The Devil Wears Prada'? Anyone at all in 'The Iron Lady'?" Scott asks in his review. "Of course not. Here Ms. Streep smokes, rants, bites her fingers, slurs her speech and spews obscenities with the gusto of a tornado laying waste to a small town."

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Sounds like fun, doesn't it? Actually, it sounds like the very kind of wild and crazy performance that academy members have often rewarded over the years. ("Screamin'" Al Pacino in "Scent of a Woman" and Anthony Hopkins' lip-smacking turn in "The Silence of the Lambs" are two of our favorites.) Actors branch voters love ham around the holidays.

But when it comes to overacting, is there a line dividing "Hoo-ha" and "devastating act of God"? And, if so, did Streep cross that divide in "Osage County"? It's one of the more interesting facets of this Oscar season, and one that's now up to academy members to decide. We'll see what they think on Jan. 16 when the nominations are announced.

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glenn.whipp@latimes.com

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