The Hollywood veteran adapts J.D. Vance's controversial memoir and turns in a pointless, meaningless film that is dull beyond belief
Every now and again a film comes along that does everything painstakingly and embarrassingly wrong. Hillbilly Elegy is the latest from Hollywood journeyman Ron Howard, a hit-and-miss filmmaker who – after a 40 year directorial career – might have delivered his biggest miss to date. It's adapted from the bestselling memoir by J.D. Vance, whose book became a major talking point for the ways in which it ostensibly allowed liberals to understand how Donald Trump won the Presidency, granting insight into the misunderstood community of Appalachian Americans.
Howard's adaptation splits the narrative into two timelines in order to tell the story of Vance's childhood, growing up in Ohio, and his time spent as a student at Yale Law School. Being a kid is tough for J.D. His mother, Bev (Amy Adams), is in a constant state of chaos thanks to a string of bad boyfriends, anger issues, and the fact she's had no choice but to raise her kids alone. Then there's Mamaw, J.D.'s grandmother, a chain-smoking hard-arse of a woman, embodied here by Glenn Close in what many have deemed a transparent bid for Oscar glory.
Howard cuts back and forth between young J.D. (Owen Asztalo) and his unusual, often turbulent childhood, and older J.D.'s time at Yale as he tries to work out which forks to use and what wine to drink at fancy dinners, in scenes that feel so familiar and unrealistic that you're instantly pulled out of this movie's inauthentic heightened reality. The apparent gist of the tale comes as adult J.D (Gabriel Basso) is forced to return home to take care of his mother after she falls off the wagon for the umpteenth time. And we learn how it was thanks to Mamah's intervention that J.D. was able to get himself on the straight and narrow and make something of his life – though the film never actually seems to begin or find a cohesive narrative thread.
Watching Hillbilly Elegy, even the most undemanding viewer will quickly find themselves asking: what is this about and why is it a motion picture? Howard and his screenwriter Vanessa Taylor strip the movie of any political avenues, leaving just the bare bones of a story that – in and of itself – fails to justify a cinematic rendering. Even by Ron Howard's uneven standards, it's lame, sentimentalised, and meaningless. Worst still, Hillbilly Elegy is fundamentally boring and completely out of touch with the times, with audiences, with reality, its narrative pointlessly fragmented only to create an illusion of depth. There is no detail or nuance; nothing has been thought out or considered with care, be it the characters themselves or their position within a frame.
Though the accusations of Oscar-bait performances from Adams and Close are mostly deserved (Adams, with dark circles under her eyes, is at her most weather-beaten; Close is caked in prosthetics and makeup), neither actor is outright terrible. Adams is far from doing her best work, and has the unfortunate task of trying to create big acting moments without an actual character, while Close is reduced to a bag of tics and sordid catchphrases – intermittently entertaining, though perhaps for the wrong reasons. The larger issue is that the pair are just not believable in these parts. Every line reading feels contrived. These portraits should have felt throughly lived-in but end up feeling like vague impressions.
Howard, having sanded off the edges of the source material, is forced instead to linger on some bizarre moments. Adams skating around a hospital accompanied by Bananarama's “Cruel Summer,” laughing wildly, feels plucked from a parody and manages to be both baffling and cringeworthy. The use of slow-motion and high frame rate, also, completely jars with the film's rustic sensibility – why is the camera constantly moving like we're in a Paul Greengrass movie?
Ron Howard has directed some stinkers in his time, but even his lesser efforts are usually watchable in that “Hollywood trash, but fine” way. This, I struggled to engage with on any level. To think that Netflix paid $45 million for the rights to the book and got this back is more depressing than it is funny. And while few films can really be called “pointless,” Hillbilly Elegy achieves that rare feat – more surprising since the source material is, whatever your opinion, the very definition of a curious cultural object. In Howard's hands, though, you feel your attention waning after mere minutes, the material evaporating into nothingness as you scramble for meaning. There is only one elegy here and it's for the viewer's time.
Hillbilly Elegy is now streaming on Netflix.Where to watch