“Let’s go – I’ve had about all the Kentucky I can take!” announces Bev (Amy Adams) about five minutes into “Hillbilly Elegy,” and I’ll tell you what, I was already in agreement. Based on the memoir of self-described “nationalist” J.D. Vance and directed by Ron Howard with the subtlety of a sledgehammer symphony, ‘Elegy’ isn’t the worst motion picture of the year (though it’s up – or down – there), but it is the most shameless, a naked play for awards and prestige that doesn’t even have the courage of its sketchy source material’s convictions. I saw it described on Twitter, sight unseen, as “a Jenna Maroney movie,” and nothing in the paragraphs to follow will summarize it quite succinctly.
We begin in Jackson, Kentucky (“the hill country”) in 1997, with golden images of the rolling Appalachia mountains accompanied by inspirational voice-over about how “others may scold our faith,” etc., so Howard is really laying it on thick, right from the jump. Soon the voice of J.D. (played by Gabriel Basso as an adult, and Owen Asztalos as a pre-teen) explains how “Down in those hollers is where I spent every summer – it’s where my people come from.” However, he, mother Bev, sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett), and his “Mawmaw” (Glenn Close) now live in a working-class neighborhood in Ohio.
Howard then shuffles ahead fourteen years later, as J.D. is now at Yale Law School, entering a tense week of interviews for career-defining internships, attending fancy dinners with law partners. What’s the most clichéd way they could dramatize his unease, you might ask, and if you answered freaking out over the fancy forks like this is a 1980s snobs-vs.-slobs comedy, congrats, you won. As J.D. juggles his anxiety over forks with the smug sneers of the Smug Coastal Elites at his table, he gets a phone call from his sister; their mom has O.D.’d again, and they need him in Ohio, stat.
Bev, we discover, is an addict; she first got hooked on pills as a nurse before moving to the harder stuff, and has spent the past decade-and-a-half chasing highs and crashing back to earth. We’re mostly just told this; the only attempt to convey why she’s an addict is an absolutely dopey moment where, in a state of oxy euphoria, she gigglingly roller-skates through the hospital from which she is quickly, unsurprisingly fired.
Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay careens back and forth between the past and present, between contemporary J.D.’s attempt to get his mom into rehab one more time and her many previous, failed attempts to get straight. Young Aszatalos does his best with some difficult moments (his is the best performance in the movie), but Basso is an absolute blank – no charisma, no anguish, no fury, nothing. Then again, nothing might be better than the shamelessness of Close’s performance – it’s pure caricature, an ostensibly great actor bugging her eyes and growling pearls of backwoods wisdom. Yet the desperation of Adams’ turn is somehow more depressing; she is wailing and hollering and clamoring for that Oscar, resulting in the most unapologetic award pandering since “The Revenant.” Just give it to her, for God’s sake, so she can go back to doing interesting work.
The dialogue is pure cringe, clanging, and phony – a lot of fist-thumping proclamations like “Family’s the only thing that means a goddamn.” The dual-timeline construction is, to be fair, an effective method of conveying the cycle of addiction; “It’s gonna be different now,” she promises tween J.D. in one facility, and then Howard ruthlessly cuts to her in the waiting room of yet another one, years later. But unfortunately, that structure allows the filmmakers to spend most of the running time parachuting in and out of moments of chaos, free of build-up or context. This turns Howard into something of a junkie himself, careening impatiently from one adrenaline shot of hooting drama to the next. It’s the prestige picture equivalent of a Michael Bay movie – when it’s non-stop action (or, in this case, non-stop “conflict”), there’s no time or opportunity to create characters of any consequence. Howard has made several great movies, and many more reasonably-good ones, but he’s making amateur mistakes here. This is just shoddy storytelling, slathered in on-the-nose voice-over and nonsense melodrama.
And if it fails as drama, it’s even worse as commentary. Aside from the fetishizing of fried baloney sandwiches and the occasional shot of boarded-up storefronts and factories, it’s not even the meditation (or apologia) of The Current Moment we’ve been promised. Much of the narrative takes place during the Obama years, but his name is never uttered; the guns and religion that candidate Obama noted that people like these might cling to barely register either. We never get a sense of either the time or the place, and whether Howard is in Kentucky or Ohio, the locations seem about as lived-in and authentic as the Whoville in his “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”
“Hillbilly Elegy” has nothing to say about the circumstances that caused these addictions and resentments, and it certainly has nothing useful to say about “economic anxiety.” There’s nothing remotely thoughtful or even provocative about it, which is a shame – at least that would’ve made it memorable. Instead, it’s just one more tired-ass addiction drama, told by a nowhere doofus who thinks this all is somehow interesting, for no better reason than that it happened to him. What an absolute crock of shit. [D]