Hillbilly Elegy is a horrific showcase for miserable overacting: Review
Hillbilly Elegy is two movies, one laughably bad and one boringly bad. They’re stitched together with the kind of flashback structure that makes you think it's time to cancel flashbacks. In 2011, law student J.D Vance (Gabriel Basso) gets called home from Yale to his heroin-addicted mother Bev (Amy Adams) and the working-class Ohio life he left behind. Meanwhile, in the ‘90s, teen J.D. (Owen Asztalos) withstands a spiraling single mom while receiving what I assume the press notes refer to as “tough love” from Mamaw (Glenn Close), his grandmother.
The film (now streaming on Netflix) adapts Vance’s own bestselling memoir, and Vanessa Taylor’s script struggles to fit in a far-flung life story. The opening scene finds young J.D. in Kentucky, his family’s ancestral home. The sun glistens on beautiful green trees, and handsome hairless boys with casual six packs try to drown him, yelling “Go back to Ohio!” It’s the opposite of authentic, but you don’t go to a Ron Howard movie for the evocative atmosphere.
Then there’s an awkward attempt to crosscut J.D.’s youth in Middletown with Mamaw’s own arrival there, when she was young and pregnant in a bustling city of industry. Citywide, hope’s all gone by J.D.’s time. Rich ore to mine here: the decline of the middle class, the loss of employment opportunity, what it’s like struggling to put food on the table in an age of miracles. Yet everything goes wrong in the execution.
The 2011 material is the merely boring bit, turning class-conscious reality into a bland fable of hard work paying off. Basso looks like what would happen if Archie Andrews spent ten years pushing the torture wheel from Conan the Barbarian. I mean that as an almost-compliment: The simmering rage in Basso’s blank stare is the only believable emotion in the present-day scenes. Yale is a series of joyless fish-out-of-water sketches: so many confounding white wines, a loving girlfriend (Freida Pinto) who laughs when he says “syrup” with one syllable, the immortal fancy-party line “Why are there so many f---in’ forks?” The Ivy League is an awful place full of constant affront to J.D.’s roots. And yet, the dangling promise of a high-paying law gig is the entire plot engine. J.D. must drive to his ruined hometown, take care of mom — and get back in time for a job interview that will promote him into a bourgeois elite. Weird flex, but okay.
J.D. finds his mom recovering from an overdose. She has no insurance, maybe nowhere to live. “Welcome home!” says J.D.’s long-suffering sister (Haley Bennett) with weary irony. A line like that ought to be in the third scene of a movie. Instead, it’s 40 minutes into a two-hour runtime. The big goofy problem is the parallel ‘90s story, which trips up all plot momentum while requiring two good actors to give miserably off-key performances.
As the younger Bev, Adams has two speeds: Loving, and “I could crash this car and I could kill us!” Her descent into addiction takes maybe two scenes, one of them roller-skating high through the ICU while Bananarama's “Cruel Summer” plays on the soundtrack. Playing a drug addict is tricky. On a story level, it requires patience: Enough narrative real estate so we understand the person behind the disease, enough scenes that aren’t just a freakout acting reel.
There’s no delicacy here, just dialogue that’s limp when it isn’t hilarious. J.D.’s stepbrother actually asks him “Wanna get high?” before J.D. cautions that weed is a gateway drug. All Adams’ scenes in the past are pitched miles above Mommie Dearest, and the present buries her in a wig. The horrible, horrible score by Hans Zimmer and David Fleming sounds like a parody of the chirpy-sweet music tormenting us in pandemic-era commercials about how things will get better.
And then there is Mamaw. I’m reminded of Amazon’s Sea Oak, a twisted pilot that should’ve been a series, where Close played an elderly auntie resurrected as a cruel hedonistic zombie. Somehow that was a subtler role than whatever she’s doing here. Mamaw has the one-liners (“I don’t give a rat fart what you’re smoking!”) and does a full-blown “Hasta la vista!” bit from Terminator 2. She’s supposed to be funny and strong, full of truth-bombs. A brief sighting of the real woman in end-credits home video confirms that Close captured Mamaw’s look — but even a lame SNL impression gets the haircut right. Close never seems to blink, and the voice she’s adopting is all wrong, a parody of gumption with no humanity underneath.
Humanity: That’s one thing missing from Hillbilly Elegy, and it’s missing entirely. Actual triumphs of spirit are hacked to pieces or left out. At one point, young J.D. gets good at Algebra, ditches his nameless go-nowhere friends, and finds a part-time job — all in a brisk montage. Closing chyrons explain that Bev got clean. Would’ve been interesting to see that, but then we might’ve missed J.D.’s own achievements. There’s an eerie myopia here, really, generations of trauma sacrificed at the altar of one man’s professional success.
I didn’t read Vance’s book, and I hope the problem is in the adaptation. (Though: The awful narration sounds ripped from the page.) The memoir became a two-stage object of cultural fascination, first as a kind of Red State explainer for Blue Staters, then as a backlashed cautionary tale for anyone seeking easy explanations for Trump. Howard never works in that cultural register, anyways. Cinematically speaking, his most profound social statement is that NASA was cool when he was young. Still, you expect professionalism from even his lesser efforts, and Hillbilly Elegy feels expensively out of control, crisscrossing listless scenes with hysterical overacting. Some point has been missed. This is a violent, sorrowful tale bent awkwardly into moving-biopic shape. Death, addiction, and straight-up poverty keep assaulting J.D.’s family, claiming one victim after another with slasher inevitability. Howard thinks he’s making an inspirational tale. He doesn’t realize it’s an American horror story. GRADE: F