Ron Howard, for me, has always been a journeyman director. He has navigated through a wide variety of genres, always putting the camera in the right place, getting good performances out of his actors, and producing slick, commercial Hollywood product. He hasn’t accomplished, however, a recognizable voice. Face it, we all can spot a Tarantino, Scorsese, or Lee (Ang and Spike) film from just watching a few frames. I can’t say the same for Howard, despite a roster of winning, highly watchable movies. So when I had heard he would direct Vanessa Taylor’s (The Shape Of Water) adaptation of J.D. Vance’s bestselling 2016 memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, all I could imagine was a bad case of “Slick Hicks From The Sticks”. Instead of leaning into the novel’s themes of a cultural crisis which led us into the Trump era, Howard gives us an overly flashback-filled, histrionic, low stakes melodrama. It seems laden with Hee Haw levels of cartoonish Southerners flaming out in what feels like a first rehearsal of a dinner theatre production of some lesser Tennessee Williams play. Howard eschews any political point of view in favor of a wan pastiche of “look at these crazy rubes” scenes.
J.D., matched perfectly and played very well by both Owen Asztalos and Gabriel Basso as teen and adult respectively, hails from Middletown, Ohio, but spent summers in the hollers of Kentucky. Although constantly bullied, his heart seems more attached to the river swimming, fried bologna sandwich eating ways of the Bluegrass State. As an adult, he has studied at Yale Law and has an important internship interview pending, but all of that culture still hasn’t beaten the south out of him. We know this because the story swims in the tropes of his not knowing his white wines or which fork to use at a fancy dinner. If only he had a Richard Gere to class up his Julia Roberts ways! His mother, Bev (Amy Adams) an often-fired nurse, throws a wrench in his plans by ending up in the hospital after a heroin overdose. J.D. drives back to Ohio to confront his past and to see what place it has in his future.
With flashbacks within flashbacks, we learn of J.D.’s youth, as well as that of his grandmother Mamaw (Glenn Close). The tough family matriarch with the shock of frizzy grey hair, oversized t-shirts, jeans, limping gait, and a foul mouth may seem like a stock character, but when her abusive past surfaces in one of those flashbacks, we appreciate the ferociously hard smoking, hard shell of a human being. Close astonishes by going deep and creating one of her most intensely memorable characters to date. Photos of the real Mamaw during the end credits reveal that Close did her homework well. Although Close doesn’t get a lot of screen time, she’s unforgettable.
J.D. also recalls the pain of growing up with his addicted mother, who hops from men to men, injects heroin as often as possible, and flies off the handle at a moment’s notice. Although an incredible actor, Adams gets stranded with a role which ping pongs from scene to scene from calm reassurance to over-the-top histrionics and back again. She burns through her scenes with great intensity, but the repetition sets in quick, leaving her stripped of any interesting gears. She does, however, have a great scene in which she roller-skates through a hospital she works at while extremely high. While uncomfortable to watch, Adams rings true here.
When J.D. meets up with his mother in present day, she faces immediate discharge from her room and in need of rehab. J.D., however, must get back for his important interview, forcing him to make a choice. He has a supportive girlfriend, Usha (Freida Pinto), and his sister, Lindsay (Swallow’s Hayley Bennett), who can help him out, but he feels the need to solve this problem on his own. Thematically, this makes sense, giving your main character a dilemma of choosing a future for himself or for that of his family. Does he move towards financial success in the city or does he embrace his “redneck” past? Unfortunately, J.D.’s adult story amounts to a ticking clock plot about being able to drive 10 hours to accomplish a goal. It’s not an exciting premise.
Howard and Taylor attempt to dress up this wan storyline by loading it up with those aforementioned flashbacks and syrupy voiceover, giving it a “That was the summer which changed everything” Afterschool Special vibe. Our characters don’t seem interested in anything but their own misery, putting a large swath of stereotypes into a loud, cussing, but bland kind of soup. When it ended, I hadn’t really learned much about them, except that they sure could get scrappy and fight a lot. The film means well and honorably confronts addiction and abuse. Without Glenn Close, and her fearless, middle finger-pointing performance, however, the dull, seemingly endless Hillbilly Elegy lands smack dab in the middle of a journeyman’s bland portfolio.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Hillbilly Elegy is currently streaming globally on Netflix.