November 10th, 2020
MOVIE: HILLBILLY ELEGY
STARRING: AMY ADAMS; GLENN CLOSE; GABRIEL BASSO; OWEN ASZTALOS; HALEY BENNETT
DIRECTED BY: RON HOWARD
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 1 ½ STARS (Out of 4)
It’s hard to put into exact words, but Hillbilly Elegy makes me wonder if Ron Howard is okay? The Oscar winning director for hits such as Parenthood, Willow, A Beautiful Mind, and many others, has made by far one of the worst films of his career in Hillbilly Elegy. Based on J.D. Vance’s 2016 book of the same name, Elegy tells Vance’s family story, growing up in Middletown, Ohio, long after his grandparents moved from the east Kentucky hills, and his struggle to crawl out of his volatile, country folk lifestyle upbringing, to earning his Yale Law School degree on his own volition. Viewed at the time as a book that spoke for the misunderstood Trump voter, the movie seems to absolve anyone in the backwoods for their “misguided views” and cyclical toxic behavior, while doing everything it can to get Amy Adams and Glenn Close to their much seeked Oscars. Even if Hillbilly Elegy succeeds at evoking empathy from viewers about the forgotten American, it falls well short of being genuine in its portrayal of actual human beings. Without the intention, Hillbilly Elegy is the most laughable movie of 2020.
The narrative bounces between J.D.’s childhood upbringing and his later success at Yale. His older self (played by Gabriel Basso) is a little fish, in a big pond, leaning on his girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto) for help on what fork to use with salad, and with hopes of scoring a career with a top law firm. During a fancy dinner for top law students, J.D. speaks about how he’s from the Ohio hilltown and every person at the table can’t bear to look him in the eyes, as a shadow of wealthy guilt clouds the other guests. J.D. is used to it, but it’s followed by a phone call from his sister Lindsay (Hayley Bennett), letting him know that his mother Bev (Amy Adams) has overdosed on heroin, again. On his way back home, we see a glimpse of J.D’s childhood upbringing, the support he received from his Mamaw (an unrecognizable Glenn Close), the constant struggle for his mother to be clean, the violent outbursts, family fights, and having the courage to pull himself out of his toxic living conditions. It’s intended to be a heartwarming story of surviving against the odds, but it’s often inauthentic, and condescending to anyone who bothers to listen.
The highlight of Hillbilly Elegy is that it has arguably two of the greatest living actors in Close and Adams, going at one another in argumentative tones. The performances from both are good (I think Close is the best of the bunch), but what’s painful is how each moment from the next feels like a speech-style effort to solidify a clip in the Oscar reel. Adam’s portrayal as Bev is a mixture of a deteriorating mother and withering away inside, all due to heavy drug use, and constant pressure. Close’s Mamaw is a character with a capital C. With big thick glasses, a large perm fluff of hair, and oversized t-shirts, it’s more of the look doing the work than the acting. And it is the screenplay from Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water; Hope Springs) that reads as if she was aware what actors would be delivering these lines, with each speech having extra twangy emphasis, while set to David Fleming and Hans Zimmer’s swelling music. Watching the trailer for Hillbilly Elegy is no different from watching the movie. In fact, it’s a summarized version, and watching it would save you two hours.
On top of the contrived nature of it all, Hillbilly Elegy is also unintentionally funny, when that is certainly not the point. It is obviously an ode to white, lower class, hard working people, but instead plays everything as a sequence of unfortunate events. A scene where J.D. falls into a rack of toys at a baseball card store, is like Moe, Larry, and Curly all in one bit. And unlike a film such as Beautiful Boy, or Requiem for a Dream, the portrayal of addiction and violent domestic situations is more like an expensive episode of Cops or Live PD. The person that younger J.D. (Owen Asztalos) starts as, which is an aimless, shy kid, living in a world prepared to chew him up, is innocent at best; But after a few inspiring speeches by Mamaw, a string of traumatizing fights to scare him silly, with inspiring music and an uptick in his workload, only then does he officially pull himself up by his bootstraps. Even after all of that buildup, we still never truly sense any honesty from Hillbilly Elegy. Everything about it is incredibly plastic.
So, yes, Hillbilly Elegy is an incredible mess. A movie that is tone deaf in any attempts to make us care for the poor white family, where the sets and cinematography are added problems to why Ron Howard is the wrong guy to tell this story. He’s been in Hollywood his entire life and has been more accustomed to recent bigger budget films such as Solo: A Star Wars Story and In the Heart of the Sea. If we want to watch a movie that truly delivers on its portrayal of the middle of America and the lost souls searching for a way out of misery, might I suggest Andrea Arnold’s American Honey? That’s a movie better than Hillbilly Elegy could ever be. Sorry Amy and Glenn. I think your Oscar cupboards are still going to be bare this year.
HILLBILLY ELEGY IS PLAYING AT SELECT THEATERS THIS WEEKEND AND AVAILABLE ON NETFLIX NOVEMBER 24TH.
1 ½ STARS
Written by: Leo Brady