Do not give Glenn Close or Amy Adams the Oscar for Hillbilly Elegy, a hellishly apolitical misfire that inadvertently exposes its murky morals. Together, both actresses have a combined thirteen Oscar nominations without a win, making them among the most statistically “overdue.” They deserve better than to finally receive recognition for a turgid Ron Howard dud that exists only to rectify that stat.
Hillbilly Elegy is based on the controversial 2016 memoir by JD Vance, a Republican commentator and venture capitalist. The tone-deaf adaptation bafflingly decides to erase Vance’s political background, which immediately renders this film pointless. Besides exploiting a bestselling book’s success, nothing about the material warrants a movie since it’s more imprecise than relatable. Proving he was the wrong choice as director, nice guy Ron Howard obliviously wants to zone in on Vance’s family, a ragtag group of “hillbillies,” and tell the story of a man overcoming burden for success. However, this entire storyline is moot because the family is barely defined. The script’s surface-level commentary on class consists of a facetious mention of dinner forks at some high-class party. This political whitewashing reduces the already uninteresting characters to false ideologies. JD Vance is a benign sketch of the main character administered over a choppy flashback structure that presents him as a genuinely well-meaning child held back by his mother’s mistakes to a young man striving for Yale. This is meant to be inspiring, but it’s mocking instead of investing. He’s too dull and inert an anchor to base a film around. Even more depressing is how the condescending liberal cowardice on display carries over into Vance’s relationship with his mother played by Amy Adams.
Amy Adams gives the worst performance of her career. The usually gentle and gracious performer is visibly uncomfortable as JD’s mother Beverly. Her face blankly scrunched and empty, her gestures unnatural and calculatedly mannered. Beverly is a single mother battling substance abuse, and Adams overemphasizes the pandemonium of addiction. It’s soul-killing to witness a fantastic actress succumb to one-note and stingy writing. Beverly is never granted levity and is never seen outside of JD’s perspective of her being an unfit mother. Her misfortunes are intended to be a curse bestowed upon by her mother (an atrocious Glenn Close). Still, this notion is hardly followed through and instead settles on shrill shouting matches between two generations. Glenn Close is given more notes to play as Mamaw, but she plays them insincerely, desiring to steal scenes with her hunched limp and rowdy line-readings. Mamaw would be a performance too over the top for even David O. Russell.
Director Ron Howard flat-lines with visualizing different timeframes (his taste in 90s music lame). He’s a glossy filmmaker amiss with the questionable decision to rely heavily on agitated handheld photography. It’s an unfavorable yet equally anonymous pairing with Hans Zimmer’s fickle score. The filmmaking fails to create the impressionistic poetry it strives for since Vance is never framed in a consistently empathetic and discernible manner. A film about family bonds as a means to overcome adversity could be the cure for a depressing year. Disappointingly, Hillbilly Elegy is not that film. It’s a grotesque and belittling experience too ashamed of its roots to tell a story about roots.