Sometimes, one's biases are simply so great that it's impossible to do anything but acknowledge them and move on. Here, then, is mine: I saw Tracy Letts's Pulitzer-winning play August: Osage County during its 2007 premiere run at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater, playing in the space it was written for and starring actors that, in some cases, the parts had been written for, and it's simply the best live theatrical experience I've ever had. The best imaginable film version could not possibly be good enough to supplant that memory. And the Letts-scripted, John Wells-directed, Meryl Streep-starring August: Osage County that now exists is, to be generous, not at all the best imaginable film version in the first place.
The big, if not insurmountable problem is the distance between cinema and theater as media: onstage, August is a terrifyingly intimate, inescapable proposition, in which we are thrown into confined space with very loud, very angry people, and left there for three hours until some loving god hears our screaming for mercy and lets it end. Movies can approximate that feeling - look to the iconic 1966 Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, one of the most successful play-to-movie adaptations in history - but it takes a sublime collision of visual talent and properly-calibrated acting to even think about approaching that place, and Wells is not nearly a talented enough director to put either half of that equation across (this is only his second movie; he's spent most his career as a TV producer/writer/showrunner, none of which require the same skillset).
Indeed, more than any other consideration the overriding flaw of August the movie - and it is by no means short on flaws - is consistent misdirection of everything from the big screaming character moments, down to the most implicit background details of the set. One immediately thinks of the title - the story is set in the hottest month of the year in Oklahoma, and the unspoken background of the dramatic fireworks is that it's fucking hot out, and all these people are miserable even before the family drama comes along to make them furious and shouty on top of it. There is not the smallest sense in the movie of that heat: Wells's immaculately pedestrian direction and Adriano Goldman's glassy cinematography see to that, stripping personality and detail out of the images and leaving just a handsome set with a digitally yellow wash over it. It is as flat and static as any piece of choked-off Oscarbait you could imagine; a thuddingly mediocre prestige film of the sort we always used to have, and have been luckily dodging for the last couple of years.
This is the worst conceivable problem for this play to have. August is not tony chamber drama, but a verbal wrestling match in which one extravagantly awful woman and one awful but potentially redeemable woman vie for dominance in a family that has been so fucked up by years of mismanagement that even something as pure as true love has to be tainted by it. These are the Westons, headed by newly widowed materfamilias Violet (Streep), whose husband Beverly (Sam Shepard) goes missing after the first scene, leading her three adult daughters to travel out to see her and wait to find out that, yes, he is dead - yes, it was suicide - yes, it was probably because he hasn't been happy for any period of his adult life, just like his wife, and just like their children. Each of the second-generation Westons deal with this in their own way - those being eldest Barbara (Julia Roberts), middle child Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) , the only one to stay behind by Bev and Violet, and baby Karen (Juliette Lewis) - dragging their own loved ones into the muck with them.
This should play as pitch-black comic tragedy, a Greek family story domesticated but made even more savage in the process, and there's no way to completely remove that from Letts's heaving scenario, even with Letts himself so actively working as co-conspirator to gut his material in a dubious attempt to streamline it and "open it up", as though setting scenes in Weston's yard makes it feel less stagey in its structure. Mostly, though, it's done in by the common habit of directors staring Meryl Streep in the face to concede the entire movie to her in preproduction; this is Barbara's story, but it's not weighted that way at all. Streep does give the best of the movie's major performances (Shepard is light-years ahead of the rest of the cast, not least because he's one of the few people who isn't obviously too young for his part, but he appears only in the first 8 or 10 minutes, before most of the characters have been introduced), but it's not a fair fight, with Roberts outright sacrificing the big dinner table scene that should play as a screaming battle of wits to her co-star. Roberts is also the most overtly mis-cast woman in the film, which doesn't help (the most overtly mis-cast person is Benedict Cumberbatch, a dismal choice for a scrawny Oklahoman man-child or an American-accented person in general).
The whole thing is despicably inert, with a few sparks of life that come along only because the dialogue is too pungent for people like Streep, Margo Martindale, or Chris Cooper to do anything with it but have it sound lacerating and punchy (these three, along with Nicholson, are the only main cast members I'd particularly want to salvage for a better movie with a wholly different crew). But it looks boring, it moves stiffly, and it is hobbled by a grotesque Gustavo Santaolla score that makes it sounds like the world's most emotionally severe ad for maxi pads. It is so detached from the emotional reality of its story that even its final scene, a horrifying bit of misguided audience-pleasing inserted by producer Harvey Weinstein, doesn't feel out of place or unearned; everything up to that point has been so saggy and moderate that nothing would have felt earned, and a milequetoast sop to the middle-aged culture hounds who wanted to see the play but never quite got around to it, and are absolutely the only people who might be able to extract and pleasure from this at all. It is emphatically and deadeningly a film for the most unimaginative and middlebrow among us, and as far removed from cinematic or literary inspiration as it is possible to be.