Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Hillbilly Elegy - Review

In 2016, J.D. Vance released his bestselling novel Hillbilly Elegy. The memoir delved into his views on the nature of hillbilly mentality and the cycle of poverty that many find themselves in because of it. It managed to be something that both sides of the political aisle could connect with in some way, and thus, it seemed everyone was reading it. Now the question is: will everyone want to watch it?

It’s pretty clear from the start that the politics of Vance’s writing are largely being abandoned for more simplistic view of his life growing up in Middletown, Ohio. Director Ron Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor are obviously more interested in the personal relationships illustrated in Vance’s work, highlighting the impacts of the women on his upbringing and eventual future. 

And why wouldn’t you want to focus on those women when they’re played by Amy Adams and Glenn Close? One certainly couldn’t be blamed for wanting to give those two room to show off their immense talent. It’s just a shame that the script and filmmaking can’t match their skills, and in some ways, actively harms their ability to give convincing performances.

The script is so overly simplistic, melting down any complexity into melodramatic mush to feed the masses that ate up the weekly servings of This Is Us. If it weren’t based on someone’s life, you’d be fooled into thinking it was a parody of much better films. Howard strips the story of any subtlety, as if he doesn’t truly understand the story of these people he is making a film about, and instead delivers every point he wants to make with the heaviest hand imaginable. 

There are exactly three things worthy of praise in Hillbilly Elegy: the performance of Glenn Close, the makeup work, and a solid score from Hans Zimmer & David Fleming. But even then, Glenn Close is aided tremendously by the transformation she is given by the makeup team, as her performance borders on cartoonish in the same way Amy Adams’ performance does. As the very influential grandmother of Vance, Close gets a lot of chances to show off, even with the poor writing. And while she may start the story as more three dimensional, Howard and Taylor boil her down to a tough love machine. 

Hillbilly Elegy is not a good movie, in fact, it’s one of the worst movies of the year. From the moment the adaptation was announced, many wondered exactly who this movie was being made for. The book is not exactly something one sees as a slam dunk adaptation, as the novel delves much more into opinion with personal stories as the base for those opinions. If Netflix had any real hopes of this being an awards contender, it’s safe to say those hopes may be dead and buried in a very deep hole somewhere in Kentucky.

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