*1/2 out of ****
(for strong language throughout, drug content, and some violence)
Released: November 11, 2020 in select theaters; November 24 on Netflix
Runtime: 116 minutes
Directed by: Ron Howard
Starring: Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Owen Asztalos, Haley Bennett, Freida Pinto, Bo Hopkins
In select theaters now. Streaming on Netflix November 24, 2020.
We’re all familiar with the term “Oscar Bait.” Well, Hillbilly Elegy is Oscar Chum.
You remember that moment in Jaws when Roy Scheider is casually chumming big scoops of fish into the ocean and, suddenly, The Great White bursts out of nowhere from the sea? Hillbilly Elegy is that shark, and we’re going to need a bigger screen than anything we have at home to contain the outsized histrionics of Ron Howard‘s pandering (if well-intentioned) Red State melodrama.
A spectacle of theatrics, Hillbilly Elegy dumps out bombast into awards-season waters teeming with Academy voters, but our TVs and iPads will have to suffice for this Netflix streamer. Fortunately, it’s a compromise worth making. It saves us from the surcharges that a trip to the theater requires, ones that wouldn’t be worth it even in a non-pandemic world.
Based on the best-selling 2016 memoir by J.D. Vance, Howard’s adaptation dramatizes Vance’s escape from rural poverty. Though set in Middleton, Ohio, Vance and his sister were raised by their drug addict single mother Bev (and, by extension, their scraggily task master of a Terminator-loving grandmother called Mamaw) who came from the Appalachian backwoods of Kentucky.
Initially acclaimed by conservative and liberal critics alike, Vance’s book (praised as a searing, honest indictment of both white trash culture and the government programs that enable it) was seen as an insight to the poor white voters who were left behind in Obama’s economy.
Since then, however, Vance has become a more polarizing figure and, inevitably, so has his book, which is now simply yet another target in our political discourse that gets parsed largely along predictable partisan lines. Thankfully, Howard’s movie avoids politics entirely, choosing instead to tell a story of family, class, region and culture.
It’s one of the few decisions that Howard gets right.
Otherwise, Hillbilly Elegy is so intent on respecting the folk of Rust Belt Trump Country that, even as it struggles to honestly examine their plight (some of it self-inflicted), it turns them all into broad, embarrassing caricatures. Earnest but desperate, it’s a train wreck of redneck clichés and dysfunction tropes, playing like an overwrought faith-based movie without the faith.
Lazily written and on-the-nose, the script uses expository narration like a crutch and simplifies complex, insidious dynamics. The intrusive music score obnoxiously telegraphs exactly how we’re supposed to feel at every moment despite the fact that the hysterics already make that abundantly and painfully clear. Formulaic when it should be specific and personal, it’s all so corny and maudlin.
Led by two famously oft-nominated Oscar bridesmaids, Amy Adams and Glenn Close yell and flail through uglied-up makeup (Adams more so with the former, Close especially with the latter) but, ultimately, the failure of these performances isn’t on the performers. The duo does their best to ground these larger-than-life hick matriarchs with genuine humanity, but their trust in Howard to contextualize it all in some milieu of raw authenticity is rarely rewarded. On the contrary, it’s betrayed by contrivance.
The two newcomers who play Vance as a teen (Owen Asztalos) and a young adult (Gabriel Basso) striving to earn a Yale law degree each deliver admirable performances as well (Asztalos especially) but they’re less-equipped to maneuver Howard’s hokey, sensationalized machinations.
Hillbilly Elegy isn’t without its effective moments, but they’re mostly relegated to the final stretch. Only then does Howard finally dial back the cornpone frenzy rather significantly, allowing moments to evolve patiently (whether tender or tragic) rather than at full-tilt. But by then it’s too late.
Mediocrity bordering on eye-rolling amateur hour, Hillbilly Elegy is a career low point for the Oscar-winning filmmaker. Yes, it’s a movie that should make us cringe, but this one does for all the wrong reasons.