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Review: Hillbilly Elegy (2020)

Can Glenn Close and Amy Adams share an Oscar for trying to save this piece of garbage?

Sometimes not even outstanding source material, an acclaimed director, and a pair of the greatest actors of our generation is enough to save a movie. Case in point, The Post (2017). Though I’m a well-documented fan of scandalous news stories, Steven Spielberg, and Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, I can’t deny that watching that movie was dreadfully dull. My brain just shut down while sitting through it. Was it important and wonderfully-acted? Yes. But dreadfully dull nonetheless. Hillbilly Elegy (2020), directed by Ron Howard and starring Amy Adams and Glenn Close, is in a similar position. I had heard this newest Netflix release was getting rough reviews but I just couldn’t believe it considering the pedigree of the talent involved. Turns out, it’s even more dull and agonizing to endure than The Post. Somewhere beneath the cheap clichés, egregious amounts of poverty porn, and odd tonal shifts is the potential for a great movie, but oh boy, is this movie far from great.

Credit: / Netflix

Based on J.D. Vance’s memoir of the same name, Hillbilly Elegy tells the story of J.D.’s tumultuous childhood growing up in a poor family in Ohio. Abused by his drug-addicted mother, J.D. eventually goes to live with his supportive grandmother who helps him see that the world has more to offer him. In the present-day, an adult J.D. must return to his hometown in the wake of a family emergency.

On paper, Hillbilly Elegy has all the makings of an obvious hit. Done properly, this movie could have been a critical darling that not only resonated with the masses but also shed a light on the harsh realities that millions of Americans struggle with. Instead, Hillbilly Elegy bastardizes its poignant source material and creates a movie that is so reliant on glossy Hollywood tropes and production that it loses all semblance of the inspiring message Vance originally wrote. Plain and simple, this movie is misguided. I totally get the message of perseverance that it’s trying to convey, but that message gets lost among scene after scene of one tragic domestic moment after another.

It feels like Howard’s sole concern is screaming, at us, “look at how bad things could be in the worst situation possible! Have an emotional reaction to this drama!” Drama is all well and good, but without any resolution, every scene comes off as just a shameless excuse for poverty porn. We get countless scenes of all the terrible, traumatic experiences J.D. goes through, but never how he pulls himself together into the Yale law student we’re introduced to at the beginning of the movie. Oh, excuse me. I forgot about how after his grandma gives J.D. half her meal we’re shown a MONTAGE of him getting good grades, getting a job, and trading in his rock band t-shirts for khakis. WITH 15 MINUTES OF RUNTIME LEFT. Where was this epiphany during the rest of the two hours? It was at that point I went, “fuck you, movie.”

Credit: / Netflix

I should be commended for my restraint because there were at least a dozen times prior to the finale that I was tempted to cuss out this movie. The first 20 minutes are insufferably slow and do a poor job of getting you to be interested in what’s going on. Bland narration that sounds as though it’s ripped straight from Vance’s memoir slows what little momentum the movie gains, insisting on telling us everything about the characters rather than showing us. Pair that with unnecessary flashbacks that while showing the horrors of J.D.’s past, don’t help to inform the present, and you have a movie that is incapable of telling a story in a way that makes viewers want to keep watching.

There were fleeting moments, basically whenever Adams or Close were on screen, that I became faintly interested in what was happening, but that interest evaporated each time it cut to present-day J.D. Gabriel Basso is an alright lead, but he’s not given very engaging material to work with. Also, while we’re talking about material, did we really need to see another, “poor white boy overcomes the odds and makes a better life for himself” story? Ugh, and we didn’t even really get to see that because all of J.D.’s character development / problem-solving was smushed into a 30-second montage at the end! The movie’s poster prominently features Adams and Close. Why would they lie to us and focus so much on J.D.’s life? Just give me these fabulous ladies and their incredible acting!

Credit: / Netflix

Between the two of them, Adams and Close share a jaw-dropping 13 Oscar nominations. The pair are sensational actresses and although Hillbilly Elegy as a whole is disappointing, rest assured that these two never are. Both actresses commit completely to their roles, transforming into J.D.’s mother and grandmother respectively, so flawlessly, that they’re virtually unrecognizable. These phenomenal actresses play every layer to their characters, seamlessly disappearing to the point where you believe you’re actually watching a real life mother and daughter. Adams and Close will floor you with how well they are acting their asses off, doing everything within their power to elevate this stale movie into something resembling greatness. In fact, do yourself a favour and watch the sizzle reel of Adams’ and Close’s performances and then just skip the rest of the movie. Hillbilly Elegy is already like the bargain version of August: Osage County (2013) and I wish that like that movie, Hillbilly Elegy had focused on its two leading ladies and given us memorable, stripped-down scenes of heart-wrenching monologues and true-to-life moments. Approaching this movie more like a play instead of the Hollywood production it became could have been enough to save it. Could have.

Credit: / Netflix

Filled with wasted potential, tacked on platitudes, and poorly-researched stereotypes, Hillbilly Elegy is awards-season fodder that isn’t sure to be remembered or celebrated anytime soon. What could have been a powerful movie with an uplifting message ultimately comes off as exploitative and lazy, a few steps below what I’ve come to expect from both the cast and crew. Elegy? What this movie needs is a eulogy because it was dead on arrival.

Have you seen Hillbilly Elegy? What did you think?

Let me know in the comments or on social media!

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