‘Hillbilly Elegy’ Film Review: Ron Howard’s Rust Belt Saga Is Yokel Hokum


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Early in “Hillbilly Elegy,” based on the memoir by J.D. Vance, Yale law student J.D. (Gabriel Basso, “The Kings of Summer”) is dining with partners at a white-shoe law firm, and when he mentions that he is from Ohio and Kentucky, he is greeted with a wave of side-eye and oh-so-polite condescension about his Appalachian origins. It’s a scene that might have more impact if “Hillbilly Elegy” itself weren’t so frequently condescending about the denizens of the Rust Belt.

The results play less like the exploration of a life or an evocation of a time and place and more like an informercial for J.D. Vance, who is more salt-of-the-earth than those snooty lawyers, but also manages not to fall into the traps of ignorance and poverty and addiction that befall so many of the people with whom he grew up. “Hillbilly Elegy” isn’t interested in the systems that create poverty and addiction and ignorance; it just wants to pretend that one straight white guy’s ability to rise above his surroundings means that there’s no excuse for everyone else not to have done so as well.

It’s 2011 when J.D. attends that lawyer dinner, in the hopes of getting a summer internship that will cover the costs for his third year of law school, and his meal is interrupted by a call from his older sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett, “Swallow”), telling him that their mother Bev (Amy Adams) is in the hospital after overdosing on heroin. Bev has grappled with opioids ever since losing her nurse’s license a decade earlier, and J.D. makes the drive home to try and get his mother into a rehab facility.

He’s sketchy on the details with girlfriend and classmate Usha (Freida Pinto), not knowing how she will react to his family drama, but the trip home provides the opportunity for multiple flashbacks to J.D.’s childhood, where Bev could be loving but also abusive, encouraging but rarely reliable. And when things get so bad at home that J.D. starts hanging out with a bad crowd and committing petty crimes, Bev’s mother Memaw (Glenn Close) sweeps in with the toughlove and the structure that put him back on the right path.

Why does J.D. take the right path while Bev keeps screwing up and being let off the hook by Memaw and the rest of the family? Per Memaw, it’s because Bev “just stopped trying,” which gives away this movie’s game: These people aren’t impoverished because corporate America shut down the local manufacturing industry and sent the jobs to more easily exploited overseas labor; they aren’t ignorant because Ronald Reagan and his spiritual heirs starved public education; there isn’t an opioid crisis in this country because the Sackler family got rich flooding the market with OxyContin — these poor folks just stopped trying.

And even if you put aside the politics of “Hillbilly Elegy,” you’re left with what Radha Blank, the director-writer-star of “The 40-Year-Old Version,” would call “poverty porn,” that lurid gawk into the lives of the less fortunate so that more privileged audiences can feel like they’ve experienced something genuine, whether it’s a fried bologna sandwich or the washing and reusing of plastic cutlery. If this movie had been made by someone who understands Kentucky the way Richard Linklater undertands Texas, or with the empathy for the working class that Debra Granik or Sean Baker bring to their films, that would be one thing, but this is a movie that always seems to be on the outside looking in, indicating rather than understanding.

Still, this is a Ron Howard production, so the pieces do at least fit together with ease. Legendary cinematographer Maryse Alberti aptly captures the various locations, from the leafy campuses of New Haven to the grim fluorescents of a shabby motel bathroom, while editor James Wilcox allows the audience to pinball backwards and forwards through J.D.’s life without losing the thread.

Based on the photos of the real-life Memaw that appear under the closing credits, Glenn Close has been made to look just like her, but the prosthetics and the fried hair and the bifocals do the bulk of the work, reducing the actress to a lot of lip-pursing, eye-bugging, and colorful swearing. Amy Adams, on the other hand, goes full tilt boogie in her portrayal of a woman trapped by circumstance and addiction, and she finds so few moments between catatonia and going-to-11 that it’s a performance of sheer artifice. That said, certain awards-giving bodies do like to honor acting that they can weigh and measure and quantify, and this overblown level of thespianism often has its rewards, just not the aesthetic kind.

The book got popular at around the time that The New York Times was sending platoons of reporters into diners across the country in the hopes of understanding the “real” American voter, and the people in those diners have genuine stories to tell. With “Hillbilly Elegy,” all we get is the fried bologna sandwich.



'West Side Story,' 'No Time to Die' and Other Films That Could've Been Oscar Contenders If They Opened in 2020 (Photos)

  • Oscar Contenders If they Opened in 2020

    There’s a lot of uncertainty in this year’s Oscar race, with the ceremony pushed back until late April and an eligibility period that does not conform to a calendar year (the end date has been extended to Feb. 28, 2021). And yet the studio release slate for some of its biggest 2020 titles have shuffled so many times that many have wondered if there will even be enough viable Oscar contenders. We assure you there will be, but it won’t be the films listed here, which removed from 2020’s box office and could have a chance for 2022’s awards. And there’s still a few more movies opening late this year and in early 2021 (“News of the World,” “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”) that if, if moved, could shake up the race even further.

    20th Century Studios/MGM/Warner Bros.

  • “West Side Story”

    Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story” figured to be a huge Oscar contender, considering that the original managed to win 10 Oscars back in 1961. But Disney moved its release back a full year to December 10, 2021 where it could still be an instant front runner.

    20th Century Studios

  • “Dune”

    Hopes were high that “Dune” could be an Oscar contender not just in the technical categories but in some of the major categories as well. Denis Villeneuve’s last film “Blade Runner 2049” won two Oscars, including for Visual Effects and Cinematography by Roger Deakins, and he was nominated for Best Director for “Arrival.” “Dune” though now opens October 1, 2021.

    Warner Bros.

  • “In the Heights”

    Jon M. Chu’s musical take on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” was a summer release and not necessarily an instant Oscar favorite early on in the year, but you figure the Golden Globes could throw it some love at the very least, but the film’s release was also pushed back a full year till June 18, 2021.

    Warner Bros.

  • “No Time to Die”

    If nothing else, Billie Eilish’s title track “No Time To Die” would’ve been a shoo-in for the Best Original Song race, but now Bond 25 is delayed yet again until April 2, 2021, after the eligibility period.

    MGM

  • “Respect”

    Jennifer Hudson likely would’ve been one of the Oscar contenders in the Best Actress race for her turn as Aretha Franklin in Liesl Tommy’s biopic “Respect,” but it will now open in August 2021 after first having a prime Christmas Day slot in 2020.

    MGM

  • “Raya and the Last Dragon”

    The good news for Disney is that a movie like Pixar’s “Soul” can still be eligible for Oscars even though it’s going straight to Disney+ this Christmas, but this film starring Awkwafina and Kelly Marie Tran was pushed back until March 12 and isn’t expected to open in time to be eligible.

    Disney

  • “Last Night in Soho”

    While far from a sure thing, Edgar Wright’s “Last Night in Soho,” the director’s first turn to drama, could’ve been recognized by awards, whether in the screenplay category or in some of the technical categories after “Baby Driver” wound up with three nominations. It was pushed back from a release this fall from Focus Features but will now open April 23, 2021.

    Focus Features

  • “Earwig and The Witch”

    The animation distributor GKIDS always manages to sneak a few titles into the Oscar race each year, and what could’ve been one of its big contenders is “Earwig and The Witch,” from Hayao Miyazaki’s son Goro and one of Studio Ghibli’s first films in years. Similar release questions surround others GKIDS releases, including “On-Gaku: Our Sound” and “Lupin III: The First.”

    GKIDS/Studio Ghibli

  • “The French Dispatch”

    Wes Anderson’s film was a selection of Cannes 2020 but may ultimately premiere at the 2021 edition of Cannes, meaning that Anderson’s journalistic anthology will have to skip this year’s Oscars. His previous film “Isle of Dogs” was nominated for two Oscars and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” won four, but Searchlight also has another contender this year with “Nomadland.”

    Searchlight Pictures

1 of 10

Movies like “Dune,” “Respect” and “In the Heights” will have to wait until the 2021 awards race

There’s a lot of uncertainty in this year’s Oscar race, with the ceremony pushed back until late April and an eligibility period that does not conform to a calendar year (the end date has been extended to Feb. 28, 2021). And yet the studio release slate for some of its biggest 2020 titles have shuffled so many times that many have wondered if there will even be enough viable Oscar contenders. We assure you there will be, but it won’t be the films listed here, which removed from 2020’s box office and could have a chance for 2022’s awards. And there’s still a few more movies opening late this year and in early 2021 (“News of the World,” “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”) that if, if moved, could shake up the race even further.

Story first appeared at TheWrap.com

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