In Netflix’s new film “Hillbilly Elegy,” Mamaw (Glenn Close) tells her grandson, JD, about Native Americans, “Just because they don’t have a microwave doesn’t give them some kind of wisdom.” The line, with its blunt nature and casual racism, is both indicative of the movie’s approach to nuance and a somewhat hypocritical assessment of how “Hillbilly Elegy” views itself.
The original best selling memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” by venture capitalist JD Vance, in fact, was frequently cited as a bastion of wisdom, eyeing the “forgotten” Americans in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. Yet, whether the original source material has merit is almost besides the point, as the film choses to punt on any kind of understanding, subtlety or even reality, promising the audience an analysis, delivering cliches spoken with southern accents and pretending they’re the same thing.
From director Ron Howard, “Hillbilly Elegy” tells the story of JD (Gabriel Basso), a war veteran from Ohio attending Yale Law School. When JD’s mother Bev (Amy Adams) overdoses, JD must return home and reckon with his past, putting his future in jeopardy. An unrelenting slog, “Hillbilly Elegy” is one of the most disgraceful, ridiculous and downright infuriating movies of recent memory, treating the viewer with a sense of hokey distaste and displaying moment after moment of dreck masquerading as profundity.
While attempting to show the viewer a contrast between yuppie coastal elites and good ’ol boy JD, the movie implodes from the start, falling all over itself in a cliche-riddled disaster. “Hillbilly Elegy” may think that “these fancy city folk use a lot of forks at their fancy dinners” or “down in Appalachia we stand for our dead” passes as some kind of trenchant philosophy but in doing so, it only demeans the intelligence of those it hopes to relate to, alienating all others with its idiocy in the process.
As a director, Howard has made a practice of debasing his material in an effort to appeal to the widest swath of the general public imaginable, occasionally to enormous success. While Howard has misfired with this approach, “Apollo 13” and “A Beautiful Mind” coupled with a now 40-year-long career are proof of his talent, taste notwithstanding. But, in attempting to be the bard of plain-talking, “real” America, Howard digs himself into a hole that he has neither nuanced understanding or intelligence to escape.
Perhaps the only redeeming aspect of “Hillbilly Elegy” is its performances, which go about as far as the overwhelmingly mediocre script will allow. As JD, Basso gives a flat performance as one of the blandest lead characters imaginable, often only existing to angrily vent about his problems and be reassured by his girlfriend (Freida Pinto) about how great he is. JD is basically only there as a structuring device, standing back and allowing Close and Adams to deliver big, if not necessarily good, performances.
As Bev, Adams, per usual, exceeds her material and attempts to create a fully realized character out of scraps. What makes Adams’ role in the film so frustrating is that she appears to have a real story to tell, as a struggling single mother dealing with opioid addiction and depression. Yet Bev remains, for the most part, unexamined as the script writes her off as a product of upbringing who needs to pull herself up by her bootstraps and beat her addiction. As a result, Adams’s performance is often reduced to a mixture of reciting sassy southern witticisms and shouting into the ether about how the world has wronged her.
Opposite Adams, Close similarly makes the best of her situation as Mamaw. A seven time Academy Award nominee, Close appears to be making her most desperate attempt yet at taking home an elusive Oscar, indicating the difficult career state for a remarkably talented and beloved actress. Close’s performance is, however, the best aspect of “Hillbilly Elegy” as her firm-jawed, tough-talking caricature is underlied by an inherent sweetness that creates an energy somewhat resembling an actual character.
Despite the cast’s best efforts, “Hillbilly Elegy” appears to have been doomed to fail, primarily because of the script’s clear weaknesses. Much has been made of the film adaptation’s decision to pivot away from the original source material’s overtly conservative politics, and whether that choice is wise or not, the movie chooses not to replace this topic with anything more than saccharin ridiculousness. Howard may acknowledge the memoir’s viewpoints with his obligatory shots of boarded up storefronts or drug dealers on street corners, but with even the slightest glance a viewer can see how hollow his attempts really are.
Ultimately, what “Hillbilly Elegy” adds up to is something between deeply misguided melodrama and an embarrassingly awful missed opportunity. With its assemblage of talented actors and a star director tackling an American crisis, portraying characters and a setting foreign to the Hollywood studio system, there should be something worthwhile about this entire effort. The fact that there isn’t is a bigger indictment of elitism and isolationism than all of the cliched “city folks just don’t understand” dialogue “Hillbilly Elegy” can dare to shout.
Eventually, a filmmaker and a talented cast may choose to explore this kind of source material with some semblance of actual insight, and they may even decide to engage with the film’s brand of mild, unexamined racism and deeply flawed understandings of why America changed after the 1950s. But if a viewer wants to find a film with an accurate assessment of the American or human experience, they shouldn’t touch “Hillbilly Elegy” with a 10-foot pole.
Contact Chris Carr at email@example.com. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Instagram and Twitter @Breeze_Culture.