Review: Hillbilly Elegy

Director: Ron Howard

Stars: Amy Adams, Gabriel Basso, Glenn Close

Ron Howard – purveyor of an almost unbroken record of dismally average movies – here outdoes himself, putting to rest the question of which Dan Brown adaptation amounts to his most feeble offering. Now he veers headlong into a career nadir so ill-timed and poorly considered that it reconfigures the entire curve of his career. Laughably, Hillbilly Elegy arrives on Netflix as a prospect for the streaming service’s yearly Oscar contingent. Good job all of the giant’s eggs aren’t in this particular basket; the bottom’s fallen out.

The title suggests reclaimed ownership – of laying to rest the ‘hillbilly’ mantle, or dramatically redefining it – but Howard’s earnest adaptation of J.D. Vance’s source material leans hard into the stereotypes and caricatures that persist in depictions of America’s Appalachian territories. If The Simpsons‘ own Cletus Spuckler were to appear, rendered in 2D animation against the backdrop of Howard’s garishly presented living colour, you’d barely bat an eye.

Yale Law student Vance (Gabriel Basso) is called back to his Kentucky home when his heroin-addict mother Bev (Amy Adams) ODs, prompting this film’s clunking reflection on disparate episodes from his childhood. These scattered memories seem set to underscore the abnormality of Vance’s family. Hell, sundry characters go to great pains labelling them as such in the film’s peripheries. In flashback, the young J.D. (Owen Asztalos) is our entryway to a succession of awkwardly played, banal or labored incidents.

Collectively these scenes seem intent on forwarding the argument that trailer-trash anarchy and expletive tirades are akin to a form of Tourette’s that J.D.’s family (and particularly Bev) simply cannot suppress, try as they might. Acts of mania that the film asks us to accept as the cost of coming from the country and very specifically this territory. Where the hill-folk are from. It may not have been the intention, but the suggestion is that Bev and her peers can’t help being feral; that a particular brand of bad behaviour is hardwired into their genetics, and that liberal America is right to lean hard in the other direction, clinging to the coasts in justified terror.

Seemingly immune is J.D. himself – his are the rational eyes of the picture – making this whole endeavour feel like $45 million expenditure so that one Yale blowhard can further shit-talk his kin to the entire planet; a prospect that doesn’t engender goodwill.

Instead of attempting to reconcile the differences between the ‘cultural elite’ city types and the ‘yokels’ of rural communities, Howard’s film only seems interested in pointing out the vastness of the divide and crowbarring it further open through tone-deaf and mawkish melodrama, as if playing directly to the MAGA crowd that have just been thinly defeated. Basso’s Vance is a confused soul, tilting from acting defensive of his background to being outwardly ashamed of it; mixed messages that speak to the complete confusion that Hillbilly Elegy consistently represents.

Howard has two former Oscar nominees here in Amy Adams and Glenn Close (the family’s grandmother ‘Mamaw’), and one supposes that their prestigious casting is intended to bolster the film’s awards season credo. Yet the performances themselves are among the least exemplary for both actors. Both feel miscast. At best the results are forgivable based on past form, at worst they’re more fish-in-a-barrel material for weak SNL parodies. One might argue that they’re parodies themselves already.

Except Hillbilly Elegy doesn’t feel that knowing, or clever. I’m left to ponder whether that might’ve been better or worse than what’s offered up here. The critical consensus seems to be that this is another example of Oscar-bait filmmaking that swings for the fences only to strike-out, hard. But then again, I can’t help but think about two short years ago when confirmed clunkers Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody still managed to race to statuette glory, so who knows.

Still, you do get to enjoy Eagle Eye Cherry’s “Save Tonight” as it inexplicably soundtracks the dilemma of whether to steal a scientific calculator.

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