Hillbilly Elegy (2020)

I’m not sure what any of us expected from Hillbilly Elegy, but if it was a good film, it seems to have been something of a tall order, and one that simply could not be met in any conceivable way by a film that seems, more than anything else, entirely unnecessary to begin with. Naturally, choosing to adapt J.D. Vance’s memoir, which is already a book that is rife with problems, particularly in the contemporary context where apologias to conservatism and “the good old days” has never been less relevant, is already a risk, since the book had flaws that would be difficult to overcome for even the most skilled filmmaker. Even worse is putting it in the hands of Ron Howard, a director who started his career with an impressive two decades of interesting work that caused many to hail him as one of the more exciting voices in cinema at the time, which was succeeded by a bout of recognition for his bland but passable biographical drama A Beautiful Mind, and which he subsequently followed up by becoming the epitome of the Hollywood institution, a director-for-hire without any authorial voice outside of his name recognition, which is now synonymous with the grinding out of uninspiring films that may occasionally hit the target they’re aiming for, but rarely manage to do much else, and can often be quite dreadful at times. Hillbilly Elegy is neither a leap forwards, nor a step back, for the director, who continues to prove that he can build a brand based on his name, and put in very little work – but unlike some of his other notable disappointments over the years, this one didn’t have the material that hinted at the possibility of a more visionary filmmaker taking the helm and improving it. However, there was still some vague potential for this film to succeed – and whatever it was we were hoping to glean from it, whether it be a hard-hitting family saga, or a modern camp masterpiece, nothing really emerges from this film, which ultimately commits one of the most unforgivable sins: it dares to be an utter bore without even an iota of personality, which is incredibly disappointing, but entirely unsurprising.

Hillbilly Elegy is not a terrible film – but that is about as far from praise as I can get when describing it, because not only does it fail to deliver anything of value (outside one or two components), but it doesn’t even have the courage to take a risk, seeming to be in fear of being seen as a travesty, which is undoubtedly something every filmmaker avoids, but would’ve at least made this worth watching, since it meant Howard and his collaborators at least stood for something. In any other context, Hillbilly Elegy would be entirely forgotten – but using his industry clout, and the fact that the original text on which this film was based was bewilderingly popular around the world, Howard managed to put together a film that demands our attention, but does virtually nothing to deserve it. Never willing to rise to the challenge of actually making something insightful or even vaguely interesting, despite the fact that there is some solid commentary embedded in Vance’s otherwise meandering yarn of his upbringing amongst “hill people” and their solid principles, the film falls flat on nearly every occasion – and unfortunately struggles to uphold even the most pedestrian approach to the dramatic story at its core, to the point where it is often laughable, which is not something that should ever be said about a film that addresses issues such as domestic abuse, drug addiction, familial strife and issues of identity. Howard squanders nearly everything that could’ve made this passable, and instead decides to once again take on the story with the overly-safe approach that may be associated with his name, but is also the precise reason why he is rarely (if ever) discussed in the context of influential artists, despite his longevity in the industry and the wealth of praise and accolades he has received, which many may regret in retrospect, considering how far he would deviate from being the filmmaker capable of bringing any story to life, which was suggested during the early days of his transition from television star to an adulated filmmaker.

Layering all the blame on Howard isn’t fair, since this is simply not a story that would’ve been strong in the hands of any filmmaker, with the exception of someone so vehemently against its message that they used it as a platform to openly rebel against the very principles that the film celebrates – we simply don’t need a film that encourages a divide, and while the more questionable material of Vance’s book is left out (which isn’t necessarily controversial, but rather lacking in any real introspection, and instead seems to be more focused on justifying a way of life that has been out of style for at least half a century), the film still remains firmly adherent to the belief that it is saying something worth the time of the wide audience that will undoubtedly go into this expecting a riveting drama, instead of a vaguely propagandistic odyssey that may avoid broader discussions (whether this is a result of realizing its own shortcomings, or just a lack of interest in making any statement whatsoever), but still makes it very clear that this is built on a loose narrative structure of “us and them”, and any film that can repeat the refrain of “my people”, putting that in contrast with the world at large, is clearly one opposed to unity, regardless of how the conflict between Howard’s more liberal values, and Vance’s clearly conservative beliefs, are reconciled. It’s limp, uninspiring filmmaking that simply fails to say anything worth nothing, and even in the moments where it was practically set up to succeed through just taking a few steps out of its comfort zone, it chooses the path of least resistance, going about telling of this family in the most innocuous, forgettable way imaginable, which is a great disservice not only to the figures represented, but also the wider population that are viewed as embodiments of old-fashioned ideals, rather than being given the space to flourish and become part of this narrative in their own way. Doing the bare minimum is rarely worth celebrating, or even acknowledging, but when you have a skilled group of artists who are told to make a decision between pushing the envelope, or delivering the material exactly as written (particularly through the influence of the original mind behind the text, who serves as a producer on the film), it’s not surprising which decision was made.

There is one element of the film that does redeem it, which is the cast – in particular, Amy Adams and Glenn Close, who were fooled into playing roles in a film that were truly beneath them as performers. Adams is solid, but seems to struggle with playing a character that is far too unlikable for an actress who can essentially do anything, except play to this level of despicability, where there is virtually no depth to the character that could’ve been so much more nuanced, especially in the hands of such a capable performer. It’s Glenn Close who is the film’s sole salvation – there’s a strong film somewhere in Hillbilly Elegy, one focused entirely on the relationship between Close’s grandmother character and the younger version of the protagonist, which would’ve made for a far more compelling film. Inarguably, Close is decent in the film – she may not be delivering anything close to her best performance, but she is bringing a level of dedication to the role that is entirely undeserving of the film around it. Her warmth elevates the role and prevents Mamaw from becoming a caricature, and through committing to the part, she finds the humour and heartbreak in a character that would’ve so easily blended into the background at yet another archetype had she not been so fervent in her desire to find some depth in the part. However, considering Mamaw is little more than a prominent supporting character who only appears in flashback segments (with the film’s promise of developing the relationship between the main character and the women who were part of his upbringing being incredibly misleading), there’s only so much that Close can do to draw attention, so her absence is deafening, and considering how no one else is really willing to put in that much effort, it’s not enough to have the only good parts of this film rest on her shoulders. Close deserved a much better film, since her dedication almost makes Hillbilly Elegy worthwhile.

In no uncertain terms, Hillbilly Elegy is a film that not only fails to deliver a coherent message, it also seems to be undergoing something of an identity crisis. In terms of genre, it appears entirely confused – it isn’t sure of whether it wants to be a brutal Southern melodrama, or a touching family saga, or a heartwarming coming-of-age tale that looks at the early years of a young man and the various people woven into his personal history. Whatever this film was aiming for, it failed in nearly every respect, taking several leaps towards several conventions, but tumbling at every opportunity, to the point where it seemed like it was genuinely refusing to succeed. Howard, as definitive of mainstream mediocrity, as he may be in most of his recent films, is still a director with tried and tested experience – and his uninspiring direction, coupled with a story that simply had very little purpose and seemed to exist to satiate some distant desire to recapture the spirit of a previous time, without actually looking at the ramifications of the mentalities that are supposedly a legitimate reason for praise and nostalgia, resulted in a film that misses the mark every time. It’s only made worse by the consistent refusal for this film to put in even the slightest amount of effort into the emotional content – the histrionics that can be found in Hillbilly Elegy can rival any excessive melodrama, just without the glamour, tact or resonance. What could’ve been a very touching story of family becomes a series of poorly-conceived confrontations occurring on a jarring timeline constructed without any thought to logic or nuance, throwing a range of emotions at the audience and hoping some of them will linger. It’s almost an assault on our senses, since very little of this film actually functions as an effective drama when it comes to exploring the tensions that are simmering beneath this familial dynamic – so it’s not entirely unexpected for a viewer to be taken by surprise by how poor some of this dialogue is, and a misplaced chuckle isn’t only acceptable, it should be expected from a film that has so little merit in how it portrays the story, it becomes almost parodic.

Hillbilly Elegy was clearly aiming to be a brutally raw exploration of identity – but it ends up being nothing more than an undercooked jumble of hysterical emotion (very little of it coming across as close to authentic, with its understanding of how human beings act being absolutely laughable at best), an endless barrage of cliches ripped directly from the hackneyed playbook that governs films like this, and a generally unpleasant disposition that attempts to be insightful and honest, but comes across as disingenuous and false in nearly every moment. It just doesn’t compute that something with the potential to be actually genuinely moving, or at the very least incredibly entertaining, could result in a film as bland and uninspiring as this. There is very little urgency embedded in this story, and the vast majority of what this film is trying to say about the human condition seems rushed at best. With the exception of solid performances from Amy Adams (who does her best with dreadful material that seems to ignore the fact that she’s a supremely gifted actress who is far above playing nothing but a stereotype in a frizzy wig) and Glenn Close, Hillbilly Elegy is simply an exercise in impoverished filmmaking, a work that is almost embarrassing in how it fails to do anything other than the bare minimum, and even then still struggles, gasping for air at every moment, and not realizing that the divide between the audience targetted by the story, and those of us who watch it for the two actresses (which is really the only reason to even pay this film a passing thought) is far too wide to justify such a wasteful approach to something that may not have ever been a masterpiece, considering how paltry the material was in the first place. There’s no need to over-explain where this film fails, because it is at least consistent in its mediocrity, which prevents it from being even slightly memorable, making this yet another work of forgettable, uninteresting storytelling from a director who has grown so complacent in his place in the mainstream film industry, that directing something as dismal as Hillbilly Elegy appeared like a good decision.


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