“Let’s go – I had about all of Kentucky I can take!” announces Bev (Amy Adams) about five minutes in “Hillbilly Elegy” and I’ll tell you what, I already agreed. Based on the memoirs of the self-described “nationalist” J.D. Vance and directed by Ron Howard With the subtlety of a sledgehammer symphony, ‘Elegy’ isn’t the worst movie of the year (though it’s up there or down there), but it’s the most shameless, a naked piece for awards and prestige that doesn’t even have the guts to the beliefs of his sketchy source material. I’ve seen it described as a “Jenna Maroney movie” on Twitter and nothing in the following sections will sum it up in a nutshell.
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We start 1997 in Jackson, Kentucky (“The Hillsbrad”) with golden images of the rolling Appalachia Mountains, accompanied by inspiring voices about “others scolding our beliefs” and so on, so Howard really puts it on the thick of it, straight from the go. Soon the voice of J.D. (played by Gabriel Basso as an adult and Owen Asztalos as a teenager) explains how “This is where I spent every summer – that’s where my people come from.” He, mother Bev, sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett) and his “Mawmaw” (Glenn Close) now live in a working class neighborhood in Ohio.
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Howard then shuffles ahead fourteen years later when J.D. is now at Yale Law School and begins a tense week of interviews for career-defining internships and attending fancy dinners with legal partners. What’s the most clichéd way they could dramatize his discomfort?, you could ask and when you have answered freak out about the chic forks This is a snobs versus slobs comedy from the 1980s. Congratulation, you won. As J.D. juggling his fear of forks with the smug grins of the smug coastal elites at his table, he receives a call from his sister; Her mother has O.D. again. and they need him in ohio, stat.
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We discover that Bev is an addict; She got hooked on pills first as a nurse before moving on to the harder things, and has spent the past decade and a half chasing heights and crashing back to earth. We are mostly just told that. The only attempt to convey why she’s addicted is an absolutely stupid moment as she rolls, giggling, through the hospital in a state of oxy-euphoria, from which she is quickly and surprisingly discharged.
Vanessa Taylor’s script moves back and forth between the past and the present, between contemporary J.D.’s attempt to get his mother back into rehab and her many previous, failed attempts to come to terms. Young Aszatalos is doing his best with some difficult moments (he’s the best performance in the film), but Basso is absolutely empty – no charisma, no fear, no anger, nothing. On the other hand, nothing could be better than the shamelessness of Close ‘s performance – it’s pure caricature, a seemingly great actress who annoys her eyes and growls pearls of wisdom from the backwoods. But the desperation that it is Adams’ turn is somehow more depressing. she whines and yells and screams for this Oscar, which leads to the most unapologetic award that has existed since “The revenant.” Just give it to her, for God’s sake, so she can do interesting work again.
The dialogue is pure horror, clatter and dizziness – lots of fist-clapping proclamations like “Family is the only thing that damn it means.” The dual timeline construction, to be fair, is an effective way of conveying the addiction cycle. “It will be different now,” she promises between J.D. in one facility, and years later Howard ruthlessly cuts it in another’s waiting room. Unfortunately, this structure allows filmmakers to spend most of the running time skydiving in and out of moments of chaos, free of setup or context. This makes Howard a junkie himself, impatiently moving from one adrenaline rush of honking drama to the next. It is the prestige image equivalent of a Michael Bay Film – If it’s non-stop action (or in this case, non-stop conflict) there is no time or opportunity to create characters with any consequence. Howard has made several great films and many more reasonably good ones, but he makes amateur mistakes here. This is just bad storytelling, embedded in voice-over and nonsense melodrama on the nose.
And when it fails as a drama, it is worse as a commentary. Aside from the fetishization of fried nonsense sandwiches and the occasional intake of boarded-up shop fronts and factories, it’s not even the meditation (or apology) of The Current Moment we’re promised. Much of the narrative takes place in the Obama years, but his name is never spoken. The guns and religion that Candidate Obama noted that people like this might hold on to barely registering. We don’t get a sense of the time or place, and whether Howard is in Kentucky or Ohio, the places seem about as lively and authentic as the Whoville in his “How the Grinch stole Christmas.”
“Hillbilly Elegy” has nothing to say about the circumstances that caused this addiction and resentment, and it certainly has nothing useful to say about “economic fear”. There is nothing remotely thoughtful or even provocative that is a shame – at least that would have made it memorable. Instead, it’s just another addicting drama told by a nowhere goofy who finds this all kind of interesting for no better reason than that it happened to him. What an absolute bastard. [D]
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