Thursday, April 1, 2021

Hillbilly Elegy is dead-on-arrival

The fact that Netflix movies tend to vanish as quickly as they premiere on the streaming service is a curse and a blessing. On the one hand, it means great indie features like The Forty-Year Old Version don't get the attention they deserve, they just get sucked up into an algorithm-driven vortex. On the other hand, it does mean the crummy Netflix movies also vanish without a trace. The Prom, for instance, never got the chance to become the next Greatest Showman, it barely made a blip on the radar. It's what happens when you put out a new movie weekly. You never get the chance to leave an impression.

So is the fate of Hillbilly Elegy, a new directorial effort from Ron Howard that dropped at Thanksgiving in 2020 before fading from the public consciousness before getting some inexplicable Oscar nominations. Based on J.D. Vance's memory of the same name, Elegy chronicles Vance (Gabriel Busso as an adult, Owen Asztalos as a child), whose a Yale Student as an adult. Before that, though, he grew up in an impoverished town in Ohio with his mother, Beverly (Amy Adams), and grandmother, Bonnie (Glenn Close). The story takes a non-linear approach to explore how Beverly's struggles with drug addiction impacted her family as well as how Vance learned valuable life lessons from his grandmother.

Hillbilly Elegy is the cinematic equivalent of spinning your wheels. It's an empty exercise praying that the recognizable title and some famous faces in the cast will be enough to make it passable. The hollow proceedings makes Ron Howard's standard over-the-top direction tedious to sit through. That approach has worked well in other films, but here, it's totally misplaced. Howard keeps leaning on big performances, bombshell storytelling developments, a sweeping score from Hans Zimmer. All of it is in service of characters we don't care about and a totally uninvolving story. No matter how much noise Hillbilly Elegy makes, it never acquires even an inch of thematic depth.

It also doesn't help that the movies just really badly put together, especially when it comes to Vanessa Taylor's script. For starters, the non-linear structure adds nothing to the film. It's another way Hillbilly Elegy is always on the move to distract you from how little it offers. There's also the fatally bad habit of how it leans on narration instead of showing crucial information. For instance, we're told through voice-over that Beverly had a close relationship with her father ("He was the only one who 'got' her") just as she's grieving his death. They have never even hinted at that kind of relationship before now. If they had, maybe the death of the grandfather would have meant something, anything at all.

Hillbilly Elegy is bad on numerous levels, but it's especially egregious on a character level. I never got a sense for why I should care about Vance as a character and I got even less of a sense of Beverly and Bonnie as human beings separate from creating drama in Vance's life. Worse, the town Vance lives in and his neighbors never get developed as fleshed-out figures. All Hillbilly Elegy cares about is lingering and gawking at these cash-strapped townspeople as a cautionary tale for where Vance could have ended up. This is a movie that doesn't treat Appalachian residents as people, they're barely even props in this narrative.

The only amusing note in the whole project, apart from a flashback scene where Bonnie sets her husband on fire, is how Hillbilly Elegy glosses over how exactly Vance got to a Yale college. Despite closing narration about how "we all choose" where our lives end up (systemic financial inequality and addiction as a sickness do not exist in this universe apparently), Vance's education situation was also in the hands of others, as he got there through a scholarship. It's another strange narrative note in a movie that has a dehumanizing approach to the poor. Amazingly, that's not even the worst part of Hillbilly Elegy. That honor goes to watching Amy Adams in this, what a criminal waste of her talent.

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