Synopsis: A Yale law student drawn back to his hometown grapples with family history, Appalachian values and the American dream.
Stars: Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Haley Bennett, Freida Pinto, Bo Hopkins, Owen Asztalos
Director: Ron Howard
Running Length: 116 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: There’s a strange feeling that overtakes you when you realize you’re watching a bad movie. Not a bad movie like most of us would think of it. You know, like, the cheap-o films with bargain basement production values and actors that can barely convince you they’re from this planet. No, there is another kind of bad movie and it’s the deadliest of them all…the prestige picture that goes south right under the otherwise hyper-sensitive noses of everyone involved. Maybe they all knew it was imploding and couldn’t get out of the wreckage or maybe, apparently like everyone involved in the 2019 big-screen version of the Broadway musical CATS, they didn’t realize it until the release date was pending.
I’d heard the tiniest sliver of buzz around Hillbilly Elegy as it was getting ready to roll out, mostly due to the involvement of two long-overdue Oscar never-winners in supposedly meaty parts. This adaptation of J.D. Vance’s popular, but controversial, 2016 memoir of his life growing up in Ohio had a load of baggage attached to it, not the least of which was its partisan political issues that festered at its core. Would the film be able to rise above these red state/blue state dividers especially during an election year where half the country supported a leader that’s morally and ethically bankrupt and still be able to maintain the heart of what Vance had to say about a poverty-laced upbringing that eventually led him to a criticized choice regarding his own survival?
Honestly? I don’t know what to report back to you on what screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water) has found at the center of Vance’s story because Hillbilly Elegy is a mess on a number of levels that it’s difficult to know what to target first. It’s an old-fashioned, paint-by-numbers take on a timeless story of rising above one’s own circumstance given no nuance by Taylor, nor provided any assistance from director Ron Howard (Parenthood) who is absolutely the wrong director for this type of tale. Through a series of scenes that hop between J.D. as a boy (Owen Asztalos, with a face always in a perpetual state of surprise) and as a Yale law student (Gabriel Basso, who actually looks like an older version of Asztalos) Taylor and Howard walk us through Vance’s often harrowing account of life with his drug-addicted mother (Amy Adams, Vice) and tough-love grandmother (Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs).
I could go on about the vignettes that take up the lion’s share of Hillbilly Elegy but they are executed so haphazardly and with maximum focus on the extreme edges of the actors performance that they start to resemble cartoons as the movie progresses. The opening scene, at the good-byes of a large family reunion in Appalachia, sparked some interest for me but once we get back to the city living of JD it goes right into one turbulent event after another. Running down a checklist of required scenes in these types of films like the middle of the street ruckus that all the neighbors come to gawk at, the uncomfortable moment where some city folk get educated on not looking down on “hill people”, clothes being thrown over balconies onto yellowed lawns…they’re all here. Yet even with all that, you’d be hard pressed to remember any characteristic of these people other than their bad traits…even their names fade from memory. In fact, it would be a miracle if you could name any of the supporting characters by the time the film concludes.
Two people you will remember from the movie are Adams and Close but not necessarily for the reasons they’d want you to. Nominated for the Oscar six times now, Adams can’t quite find that role that’s going to get her across the finish line and I fear we’re getting into that arena where it’s not happening or if it does happen it will be a cumulative reward instead of it being deserving for the actual role she’s nominated for. There’s no chance of that happening here, though. While I like Adams for the most part, she grabs for too much and comes back with fistfuls of air, at times to our own wincing embarrassment. It’s a strange swing and a miss for Adams and I wonder if the role would have been better suited for an actress less well known without all of that awards-hopeful dreams attached to it.
Strangely, though you’d think her part would be the more problematic what with the wig, glasses, mottled skin, and endless supply of 6XLT t-shirts and carpenter jeans she wears, Close gets better the more we get used to her. She also does what every true A-list star does best…make everyone else look as good or better in shared scenes while still performing the ever-loving heck out of her own part. Close may get poked fun at for her seven Oscar losses but she stands the best chance out of anyone to get a nomination and might just deserve it. The performance is Close through and through, played straight to the back of the theater and making you feel like you’re the only one in the room with her. (Side note, I saw Close recreate her Tony-winning role in Sunset Boulevard a few seasons back and can confirm this phenomenon is true. I was in the balcony but often felt like I was sitting next to her…she’s that good at bringing you in). Close wants that Oscar so bad she’s practically gnawing on it and while I’d much rather see her get it for the long in the works movie of Sunset Boulevard, I wouldn’t cry my eyes out if this is the one that sealed the deal.
I wish that the two JDs were as strong as their alpha females. Basso is a bit of a black hole when it comes to being a scene partner, he’s not bad but merely serviceable and this should be a star-making role. Six or seven years ago this would have been Chris Pratt’s role and he might have had a better take on this character. Credit to Asztalos for having several rough scenes to get through but, again, there’s no nuance to anything he’s doing. The dial seems to have three settings (all breathing through the mouth) and nothing much more than that goes on in his performance. For what little she has, Haley Bennett (The Magnificent Seven) gets a few good moments but disappears for long stretches where we wind up forgetting to miss her. Speaking of disappearing, as JD’s law-student girlfriend poor Freida Pinto (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) wins the Laura Linney in Sully Supporting Partner Who Just Talks On The Phone award because all she seems to be there for is to chat with JD and offer words of encouragement from miles away.
Arriving just as a bitter election cycle has ended (or has it?), the timing for further discourse on the merits of Hillbilly Elegy seems wrong. I’m not sure Taylor or Howard even registered there were deeper issues to discuss that bubbled below the simple story of JD pulling himself away from a family troubled by drug use and not being able to make ends meet. It’s there, though, and I can see why the book became a bit of a lightning rod for those that live in that area Vance high-tailed it away from. Surprisingly, Howard has been making some good documentaries lately like this year’s Rebuilding Paradise. That film about the California wildfires focused on how communities work together to solve problems. Funny, then, that in directing Hillbilly Elegy he seems to take no interest in another community also working on solving issues from within.