Hillbilly Elegy Movie Review
An elegy notably lacking in hillbillies the way we know and love, Hillbilly Elegy is an embarrassingly surface-level drama from Oscar winner Ron Howard, a memoir adaptation that lacks soul but plenty of over-the-top, uglified performances seeking award justification. Not terrible as much as it is pedestrian, Hillbilly Elegy is wasted material through and through.
Though the movie stars Gabriel Basso and Owen Asztalos as Its central character (old and young), its leading ladies—Amy Adams and Glenn Close—are getting the attention. Adams plays a version of her trashy character in The Fighter, only this time around it’s as if she’s making fun of herself on SNL. Scene by scene she brings emotion to the role, but in totality something seems... off. There’s nothing to latch onto here, no emotional arc or comic absurdity or purpose to her character other than to exist as a predictably unpredictable creature who makes bad decisions and causes havoc. She is a wrecking ball, and not necessarily a good one. Close, meanwhile, offers more heart—as frightening as she looks—but still notably little depth. She’s playing a skit over and over again, doing her best hillbilly impersonation, but again, what’s the point?
This lack of depth to the film, based on the memoir by J.D. Vance, poses real challenges to the A-list actresses involved. It’s a downright death knell to the poor actors tasked with having to play J.D. himself. I hate to say it, but both actors seem to have been cast for their resemblance to the author, and not for their acting talent. They flail in just about any scene requiring emotion—which is to say most scenes—though it’s hard to say how much is them or the painful material, which just doesn’t quite seem to tap into the complexities of the socially derided and often misunderstood subclass that is supposed to be depicted here. The movie actually only spends one scene “in the hills;” the rest is focused on portraying these people as drug addicts or simply bad dressers, or, in Vance’s case, someone looking to escape it all.
Of course, it isn’t and shouldn’t be that simple. There is love here, and family bond, and nostalgia for childhood regardless of experience, but the theatrical version (sorry, Netflix version) of Hillbilly Elegy doesn’t appear to understand the interconnectedness of at all. The characters talk about it, but Howard never lets us feel it.
When all is said and done, the movie just comes off as cheap. Howard, a somewhat maligned director despite having made several very good, reputable films, just doesn’t appear to have tried very hard here. That’s likely unfair, but the aesthetic, tone, and ultimate product simply don’t align to the subject matter at hand. For Adams and Close, who still for some reason is receiving award buzz, to come off as so cheesy and ridiculous, is a feat no director should boast, and yet here we are with Hillbilly Elegy, a poem to nothing. Nothing important, at least.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.