Hillbilly Elegy, don’t come back now, ya hear?
Director: Ron Howard Starring: Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Haley Bennett, Frieda Pinto Running Time: 115 minutes
Sometimes ignorance is bliss. No matter how honestly one might believe that the Oscars are not the be-all-and-end-all of filmmaking, the ceremony remains impossible to avoid in the world of film. It can be a black hole that sucks in all quality discussion of the subject. Once familiar with the term ‘Oscar bait’, the industry within an industry that farms out forgettable, pandering, dull dramas purely to snag award nominations, it’s a bell that cannot be un-rung. A third, more cynical eye opens. It becomes just a little harder to judge certain films on their own merits, to become immersed in the nuances of an actor’s performance and not the narrative over their worthiness or whether they are ‘due’ their big win. Increasingly, every year the Oscar season also quickly picks out an ‘enemy’ among the frontrunners, from La La Land to Joker, the discussion around the films, quality or otherwise, becomes slightly weighted; talk about whether the films would be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ winners taking on an ethical meaning as much as a qualitative one. The whole discourse can become it’s own self-perpetuating headache.
It’s actually a comfort then, when the Oscar Bait isn’t just middle-of-the-road but rather veers wildly off the road and into a lake where it sinks to the bottom with the rest of the miserable shite. As is the case with Hillbilly Elegy.
As directed by Ron Howard, the steady hand that pulses forgot, Hillbilly Elegy attempts to sand off any edge that it might have, or indeed any deeper purpose, the reliable director taking a best-selling book, dutifully ignoring any messages within it, and stepping back to allow big stars free reign to build up scenes for their Oscar reels. The book in question is a memoir of the same name by former marine and current venture capitalist J.D. Vance. Adopted as some sort of ‘middle America explainer’ following the 2016 US election, the book describes Vance’s upbringing and family background in Ohio, their Appalachian roots, his mother’s challenges with drug addiction and Vance’s views on American poverty, alcoholism and abuse. It’s easy to understand why certain readers would be drawn to Vance’s personal narrative of pulling himself up by his bootstraps under the firm and folksy tutelage of his grandparents. Easier still to understand why Conservative media outlets and Hollywood producers alike would see a writer who boils social issues down to his own point of view and critcises people on welfare for owning phones and slap their rose-tinted glasses on to appoint this random dude the Mayor of Hick Town.
Vance’s economic theories (“it’s your own fault if you’re poor”) are relegated to plausibly deniable implications for this film, which is more interested in trying to mine his family drama for awards gold. Taking centre stage on that front are Amy Adams as J.D.’s struggling mother Bev and Glenn Close as Mamaw, the granny with an acid tongue, iron fist and heart of gold, a trio of genetic makeup that is as inhuman as it sounds when combined onscreen. There is a structural issue at the outset, as these characters are essentially the film’s main attraction but J.D. is centre of the narrative. Flitting inelegantly between his adult years at Yale and his difficult childhood, Vance is shown as a passive, uneventful film subject, usually consigned to waiting for his mother or grandmother to do something more dramatically interesting. Except for when he does whippets and smashes things maybe, which is lively even if not exceptional. It’s a thankless part for Gabriel Basso and child actor Owen Asztalos, with asinine voiceover and simple Flashback Hokey Cokey editing bringing us through a parade of flatly-staged screaming matches. When Adams or Close aren’t on screen, the inspirational throughline the film puts on Vance’s story (young J.D. needs to try harder at school, older J.D. needs to go for that summer internship and believe in himself), does not make a compelling case that this is a story that needed to be told. It all amounts instead to stage setting for the lead actresses to do their capital A Acting.
Adams swings hard for the fences. As a performer her best work has been done with characters perfectly poised with their film’s tone, whether it’s wide-eyed cartoon princesses or foreboding cult leader’s wives, she’s at her strongest when the film around her has a clearly defined, well-presented world for her to sink into and become grounded within; a tether between the story and the audience with an empathetic touch and a lived-in quality. Hillbilly Elegy does not have a consistent or well-considered tone because it offers Hollywood’s clouded perspective of a Conservative huckster’s calculatedly narrowed one; to make herself seen through this pinhole, Adams is all wide-eyes and loud voices. Her mood swings and jittery addict affects, however called for by the scene or true to the real Bev, are overly-conscious acting choices that prove to hard to genuinely connect with. The strain becomes depressing and not in the way the filmmakers intended. A scene of Adams roller-blading through a hospital while on pills, flashing the same goofy grin sitcoms use when their characters uh-oh-spaghetti-os do drugs on accident, really underlines the lack of dignity in the whole affair.
Close meanwhile looks ridiculous underneath the “poor old person” makeup and sketch show levels of overly-literal costuming (see the picture above). She almost never has a cigarette out of her mouth and speaks with the same exaggerated drawl heard equally from actors playing Southeners and absolutely every non-acting individual from outside America doing a generic ‘American accent’, all howdys, all the time. At least she maintains an entertaining presence with her grumpy one-liners and world-weary attitude, but it’s hard to get on board with Mamaw, as the film insists on elevating her to a sagely, saintly status, a mammy beating the viewer over the head with a wooden spoon to drill what is ultimately a muddled message into uninterested heads. With her and Adams taking up so much on-screen oxygen, other performers like Haley Bennett and Frieda Pinto are saddled with useless two-dimensional supporting roles, no one has any character traits because Bev and Mamaw have hoovered them all up.
After a dull first hour of the same back and forth, past and present, ‘why won’t you get better’ and ‘I promise I will try to do better’ arguments, the film limps on and on long after it has said everything it has to say. Ron Howard is a generally solid but unspectacular directorial voice, his simply staged scenes here only highlighting how over-the-top the lead actresses he refuses to reign in become. He’s too hands off to be truly unhinged. Shape-wise, squares at least have edges sharp enough to prickle with when they’re going on a tirade about drug-abusing welfare cheats, Howard is more a square with the sides rounded off, so nothing here has enough weight to impress even when it threatens to become so-bad-it’s-good melodrama. Scenes of a mother demanding that her son piss in a cup so she can cheat a drug test, or prolonged discussions with Mamaw hooked up in a hospital bed over whether or not Native Americans have an innate sense of when they’re going to die would have a bizarre but engaging fever dream feel if Howard had it in him to be feverish; take that heat away and you’re just left wondering if you’ve fallen asleep. It’s fun to make fun of after the fact but rarely as entertaining to actually watch.
Combining miserable subject matter with lazy presentation, Hillbilly Elegy is a misguided attempt to tell a story of economic plight from people several millions of dollars happily removed from the concept, disengenuous fakery. When even the Academy has recognised more grounded, honest and interesting approaches to these kind of stories in the recent past from the likes of Debra Granik and Dee Rees, it’s a bummer (but not impossible) to imagine them falling so easily from this calculated but hapless attempt. It’s a confused mess, as slackjawed and helpless as it’s own insulting perspective of the people it claims to understand. Trying to teach her gormless grandson a valuable lesson, Mamaw at one point goes into a confusing monologue inspired by Terminator 2. Everyone in this world is one of three kinds she says: a Good Terminator, a Bad Terminator, or Neutral. Even someone unfamiliar with that franchise is probably aware that there are no ‘neutral Terminators’, and the advice under even the lightest scrutiny isn’t informed by the inclusion of robo-Arnies at all, but the oxymoron unwittingly serves as a good summation of this elegy itself; a bland message, badly made.
(1 / 5)