Hillbilly Elegy wears me the hell out. Without reading the source material, it’s hard to say if screenwriter Vanessa Taylor’s adaptation of J.D. Vance’s bootstrap-yanking memoir turns the jumble of adolescent Appalachian upbringing and Hollywood shorthand into a flat, scattered, and trite narrative or if it’s doing it backhanded justice. The story of J.D.’s imperfect childhood and Ivy League aspirations—forced back together by his mother’s heroin overdose (when he has a big interview coming up too!) after his initial escape to Yale—comes decorated in poverty cosplay and wielding a misguided sense of superiority.
Muddled and dull, cutting back and forth haphazardly across two timelines, Hillbilly Elegy tries to convey the hardship faced by J.D. and his family while patting him on the back for not letting them drag him down. It portrays an unreasonable world run by uncooperative doctors and lawyers, while ogling its disapproving camera on any person that looks like they might make less than six figures. It proudly stumps for Real America and its values (“hill people” have respect, J.D.’s Mamaw notes, unlike SOME people) while filming them like it’s visiting a zoo.
Hypocritical in both its overarching themes and its line-by-line dialogue, director Ron Howard’s film feels false from the jump. When a movie called Hillbilly Elegy gets mad at someone referring to “rednecks,” both Jeff Foxworthy and all the joke-filled Facebook pages my Arkansas relatives follow are gonna call bullshit. The movie can’t quite figure out who it hates. Is it the urbanites that don’t know the joys of a fried bologna sandwich? Or is it the yokels it deems too stupid, unambitious, or drug-addled to leave them behind? The result is a gray, aimlessly shambling, Oscar-hungry monster cobbled together by a mad scientist wearing fake “Billy Bob” teeth.
The awards thirst is palpable from the swelling string score to the closing based-on-a-true-story photo montage—not to mention the casting that didn’t even seem to refer to the script. Glenn Close’s Mamaw is supposed to be just 13 years older than Amy Adams’ Bev? Really? Both tragically bewigged performers go big in roles almost parodically perfect for the perennial Oscar hopefuls, always reminding us that yes, it really is them in those Walmart T-shirts. Adams is unhinged in a sad way, while Close stretches actorly affectations as thin as the wisdom she’s asked to dispense. Her aphorisms and exclamations are just the absurd starting point for a character with more constipated grimaces than personality. At least Gabriel Basso’s cardboard J.D. looks a lot like Owen Asztalos, who plays his younger self with a tiny bit more life.
As the central, self-centered, self-loathing, defensive hero, J.D. is lifeless as an adult and one-note as a kid. Banality treated as exceptional is how this film operates. Young J.D. can spout football stats and he likes watching the news, which signals he’s got the ability to escape suburban Ohio. He can decide to be somebody, as Mamaw puts it. Similarly, the film treats such things as watching Terminator 2 on TV or struggling to pay a medical bill as worthy enough moments to get the set piece treatment.
Sure, there are a few encounters with the police, where Bev’s addiction and other issues get their biggest examination, but those feel so unceremoniously dumped into the story (partially due to the arbitrary time hops, which never allow us to get our bearing nor for drama to be developed) that they feel like afterthoughts—hardship-signifying decorations that the filmmakers thought necessary rather than moving climaxes to a plot. Flashbacks with Bev are supposed to feel volatile, but her light-switch temper doesn’t elevate tension or make us feel like we’re walking on eggshells. Rather, her outbursts feel like we’re being egged—it’s always a messy surprise that gets old fast.
That’s a failure from Howard, whose filmmaking is so basic and cookie-cut that at any moment it seems like a talking animal might start espousing wisdom or a child might explain that God is actually Not Dead, thank you very much. Compositions are ramshackle, scenes are sloppy and overlong, and every aesthetic trope is milked dry. Drama not moving enough? Don’t worry, Ron’ll crank the slo-mo. You might think the whole movie is in slow motion for how long it makes two hours seem…and then it gets even slower. Perhaps worst of all, Howard—a man who is the name-brand meme for voiceovers thanks to Arrested Development—punishes us with a terrible pretentious opening.
While most of the film is simply mediocre-to-bad melodrama with a questionably conservative bent to its messaging, some elements stand out for how downright terrible they are. An overreliance on J.D. knocking stuff over, which sounds made up but is the instigator for three separate scenes (how clumsy can one kid be?), becomes slapstick that’d be laughable if it wasn’t so lazy. After the second time, you’ll be yearning for the pacing and precision of The Three Stooges. The climactic, inspirational montage that signals the work J.D. actually does to rise above his lot in life involves doing his chores, finishing his homework, and working a part-time job – it’s smut for Fox News hosts and parents of preteens. It’s not all this bad, but it would probably be more entertaining if it was.
Viewed through the lens of The Glass Castle or Educated, which tackle similar poor white Horatio Alger narratives with their own harrowing twists, Hillbilly Elegy is even harder to swallow as the story getting the A-list treatment. Very little happens and the elements it includes—cycles of abuse, opioid addiction, a sister so lightly sketched that I haven’t even mentioned her until now—are barely engaged with to the point of being insulting to the true story behind them. The only solace available to those who see aspects of their lives taken and chopped up into exoticized clichés by this arm’s length awards hopeful is that it likely won’t get any.
Director: Ron Howard
Writer: Vanessa Taylor
Starring: Glenn Close, Amy Adams, Gabriel Basso, Owen Asztalos
Release Date: November 11, 2020
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.
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