Oh, Hillbilly Elegy.
This is a film that I think a lot of people expected to be an Oscar contender because it was directed by industry favorite Ron Howard, it was based on a genuinely moving best seller, and the cast included Amy Adams and Glenn Close, two actresses who are more than overdue for their first Academy Award. I don’t think anyone expected it to win much, largely because Ron Howard isn’t exactly the most groundbreaking director working in Hollywood, but it was still expected to be contender.
Even before it was released, there were a few signs that Hillbilly Elegy might not be the award-winning film that some were expecting. The first images from the film featured Glenn Close and Amy Adams looking like characters from some sort of ill-conceived SNL sketch. Then the trailer came out and it was so obviously Oscar bait-y and heavy handed that it was hard not to suspect that the film was trying just a bit too hard. By the time the film itself finally premiered in November, I think a lot of people were specifically waiting for their chance to skewer it.
Make no mistake about it, Hillbilly Elegy deserves a certain amount of skewering. Its a bit of a tonal mess and, far too often, it feels as if Ron Howard is inviting us to gawk at the film’s characters as opposed to showing them any sort of real empathy. Those critics who have claimed that the film occasionally feels like “poverty porn” have a point.
And yet, despite all of those legitimate complaints, I would argue that the film is partially redeemed by the performance of Glenn Close. Close plays Meemaw, who always seems to be carrying a lit cigarette and who has no hesitation about threating to beat the Hell out of her children and her grandchildren. Meemaw lives in a cluttered house that probably reeks of smoke. The TV is almost always on. Meemaw is a fan of Arnold Schwarzenegger. If you’ve ever wanted to hear Glenn Close say, “Hasta la vista, baby,” this is the film for you. Meemaw is a somewhat frightening character (during one flashback, she sets her drunk husband on fire) but she’s also the most caring character in the film. When it becomes obvious that her drug addict daughter, Bev (Amy Adams), is incapable of taking care of J.D. (played by Owen Aszatlos as a teen and Gabriel Basso as an adult), Meemaw essentially kidnaps J.D. and take him home with her. Close’s performance is undeniably theatrical but it works. She communicates that underneath all the bluster and the profanity and the anger and the cigarette smoke, Meemaw truly does love her family. Glenn Close transcends the film’s flaws and brings some real heart to the story.
Hillbilly Elegy opens with J.D. as a student at Yale Law School, hoping to get accepted for a prestigious summer internship. Meanwhile, all the other Ivy Leaguers treat J.D. like some sort of alien on display because he’s originally from Kentucky, he served in the army, and he went to a state school. Though ambitious and intelligent, J.D. still feels likes an outsider. When he goes to a banquet and discovers that he’ll be required to use different forks throughout the meal, he calls his girlfriend (Frieda Pinto) and gets a quick lesson on which fork to use when.
Unfortunately, before the meal even starts, J.D. gets a call from his sister, Lindsay (Haley Bennett), telling him that Bev has overdosed on heroin and is at the hospital. J.D. has to drive all the way to Ohio so that he can try to get his mother into a drug rehab. Because Bev doesn’t have medical insurance and would rather just stay with her good-for-nothing boyfriend, that turns out to be a bit more difficult than J.D. was anticipating. The film becomes a race against time to see if J.D. can get his mom taken care of and still make it back to Connecticut so that he can interview for a prestigious internship. Along the way, there are frequent flashbacks to Meemaw telling the young J.D. that he can be something better than just a hillbilly. All he has to do is try and not give up.
By structuring his film as a series of flashbacks, Ron Howard ensures that there’s really not any suspense about whether or not J.D. is going to be able to escape from Appalachia. Since we’ve already seen that the adult J.D. is going to be end up going to Yale, it’s hard to get worried when we see the teen J.D. smoking weed and hanging out with a bunch of losers. We know that J.D. is going to get over his adolescent rebellion and get his life straightened out. The film tries to create some tension about whether or not J.D. is going to be able to make his internship interview but, again, J.D. is going to Yale and living with Frieda Pinto. From the minute we see J.D., we know that he’s going to be just fine regardless of whether he gets that internship or not. In fact, his constant worrying about missing his interview starts to feel a bit icky. While Bev is dealing with her heroin addiction, Ron Howard is focusing on J.D. driving back to Connecticut as if the audience is supposed to be saying, “Oh my God, has he at least reached New Jersey yet!?” This is the type of storytelling choice that could only have been made by a very wealthy and very comfortable director. It reminded me a bit of The Post and Steve Spielberg’s conviction that, when it came to the decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, audiences would naturally be more interested in the owner of the newspaper than the people who actually did the work breaking the story. Here, Howard seems to be saying, “Yes, Bev might overdose and die having never reconciled with her son but the real tragedy is that J.D. might have to settle for his second choice as far as prestigious summer internships are concerned.”
Along with the story’s structural issues, the film also suffers because the usually wonderful Amy Adams is miscast as Bev. Adams acts up a storm as Bev but the performance itself a bit too obvious and on-the-surface. While Glenn Close disappears into the role of Meemaw, you never forget that you’re watching Amy Adams playing a character who is a bit more troubled than the usual Amy Adams role. You don’t think to yourself, “Oh my God, Bev is losing it.” Instead, you think, “Amy Adams sure is yelling a lot in this movie.” Somehow, Hillbilly Elegy makes Amy Adams feel inauthentic, which is something that, before I watched this film, I wouldn’t have believed to be be possible.
Aside from Glenn Close’s performance, Hillbilly Elegy doesn’t quite work and that’s a shame because I do think that a good film could have been made from Vance’s book. Unfortunately, Ron Howard doesn’t bring any sort of grittiness to the film’s depiction of what it’s like to be poor and forgotten in America. Instead, the film feels just a bit too slick. It attempts to be both a film about poverty and a crowd pleaser. When the movie should be showing empathy for its characters, it puts them on display. When it should be challenging the audience, it pats us on the back as if we should feel proud of ourselves merely because we spent two hours watching J.D. and his family. The film just doesn’t work. No wonder Meemaw prefers watching The Terminator.