For every major awards contender, your Parasite’s and Joker’s of the year, also comes an occasional The Goldfinch. Ron Howard’s latest outing, based on the New York Times bestselling novel “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis”, most certainly falls into the latter category. Hillbilly Elegy has no shortage of good intentions, with a potentially fresh narrative focus and top-tier performers, but the final product is a fairly disastrous, old-fashioned biopic that feels far past its expiration date.
It’s not hard to see why Howard — in desperate need of a hit after the likes of Solo: A Star Wars Story and In The Heart of the Sea — would take on a story like this. Brushing aside Vance’s real-life profile as a Silicon Valley venture Capitalist with ties to Brett Kavanaugh and other members of the right wing, Vance’s novel opens up the possibility of a filmmaker like Howard, himself coming from a large, complicated family, to mine a great deal of truth into the shrinking middle class of today. The potential is ripe for an intimate look at modern society’s failure of these folks and how to work on repairing the damage. Howard’s film, forgoing any position on the matter, instead settles on mawkish melodrama and old-school finger wagging.
It’s a shame because the ensemble of actors are clearly game for the material. Gabriel Basso, despite being unable to hold anywhere near the dramatic weight of his surrounding performers, manages to make the vacant character of Vance somewhat compelling. Freida Pinto makes an offensively thankless role engaging as does Haley Bennett; coming off a strong year with a spectacular turn in the little-seen, Swallow. The two most noteworthy performances — for different reasons — belong to Amy Adams and Glenn Close.
Adams, portraying Vance’s troubled, addict mom, is constantly operating on a different wavelength than the rest of the cast, or the film for that matter. The brash, over-the-top performance might work in a different film, but the film’s treatment of her, this depiction of a women who, as Close’s character once puts, “just stopped trying”, is nothing more than a glorified cliché who is pranced about ultimately to be shamed. The character has such thin range, you have to wonder how a meticulous performer like Adams can be directed so off-key.
Glenn Close serves as the films true shining light as the hardened, but loving “Memaw”. Close singlehandedly delivers the films most raw, genuine moments, even succeeding in bringing out the few glimpses of realism in Adams’ performance. Young J.D.’s (Owen Masztalos) fond remembrance of small moments with Close’s Memaw that include lively viewings of Terminator 2 and critical bits of tough love are unquestionably the most affectionate, moving elements of the film. The few lovely examples of what could have been.
When you have a biopic that gives its audience nothing of interest regarding its subject, said biopic is most likely not going to end up being very interesting. J.D. Vance, as portrayed by the film, has no interesting traits beyond the idea that he comes from a poor, troubled household and ended up graduating from Yale Law School. Penned by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water, drastic decrease in quality), the jumbled narrative flashes back-and-forth from 2011, following adult J.D. to 1997, following a tween J.D, with the precision of a hammer. The hoaky narrative is structured around J.D. having to leave his disarrayed family in a moment of crisis in order to show up for a job interview halfway across the east coast.
The film trades real truths and nuance for Pure Flix-level soapy melodrama that results in occasional moments of unintentional humor. Some sequences flirt on full-blown Lifetime-movie satire while other sequences, such as Adams’ character roller skating through an ICU under the influence on her shift while Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer” plays in the background, feel highly misguided. Perhaps the most critical factor of Hillbilly Elegy‘s failure comes from the extreme lack of true, humanist empathy regarding its characters. Taylor’s script and Howard’s direction so widely miss the mark, these people come off as nothing more than well-acted caricatures that serve the novel’s original intention more harm than good.
Ron Howard has seen recent success with Documentary filmmaking, perhaps that’s where his true passion currently resides. Even if you look past the hackneyed script, the sanitized portrayal of its lead character and lack of insight needed to properly explore this story, Hillbilly Elegy still ends up being a jumbled, overly mawkish biopic about a dull person that comes from a slightly more interesting background.