J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” an election-year explainer to liberal America concerning the white underclass that fueled Donald Trump’s rise, has been reborn as blandly overbaked awards bait.
Ron Howard’s adaptation, penned by Vanessa Taylor, has largely achieved away with the moralizing social examination that made Vance’s bestseller — the second half of that subtitle, “A Memoir of a Household and Tradition in Disaster” — such a lightning rod. The 2016 ebook got here in the intervening time many had been looking for explanations for the political shift going down throughout Appalachia and the Rust Belt. “Hillbilly Elegy,” a pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps cultural critique-slash-tribute to the writer’s Ohio-Kentucky heritage, emerged as one of many trendiest solutions.
Howard’s movie arrives on the heels of one other election cycle and not using a whiff of the identical evaluation — Vance wrote of “discovered helplessness” and “one thing nearly non secular concerning the cynicism of the group at giant” — and he as a substitute leans into the colourful and tough characters of Vance’s household for a neater redemption arc. That has a twin impact. This “Hillbilly Elegy” has stripped away probably the most sermonizing, debatable elements of the ebook, nevertheless it’s additionally denuded it of any deeper goal, leaving us with a cosplay shell of A-list actors chewing rural surroundings.
Howard’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” in theaters and on Netflix, is well-meaning. But it surely teeters always on the sting of parody, by no means slowing down sufficient to let its characters — a shouty, melodramatic bunch preventing via a chaotic world of poverty, dependancy and abuse — come via as way more than caricature. If the ebook begat a blizzard of op-eds, the movie is extra prone to encourage solely memes of its most Appalachia cleaning soap opera moments.
It is a jumble of timelines, however the fundamental form of “Hillbilly Elegy” is a reluctant homecoming. J.D. Vance (Gabriel Basso as an grownup, Owen Asztalos as a child) will get a name from his sister (Haley Bennett) that their mom Bev (Amy Adams) has overdosed. Leaving his girlfriend (Freida Pinto), he drives residence from Yale Legislation Faculty when he is on the cusp of a serious job interview to the decaying metal down of Middletown, Ohio. The journey forces him to reckon together with his roots, bringing again a flood of recollections simply as he is leaving his previous behind.
Some recollections are higher than others. Something with grandma, for starters, is one thing to behold. That is as a result of Glenn Shut, buried below prosthetics, a coral reef of frizzy hair and plate-sized glasses, is the crochety, cigarette-smoking, foul-mouthed Mamaw. Shut, who was so brilliantly refined in 2018’s “The Spouse,” has nearly broke the needle within the different course. Her Mamaw takes in younger J.D. after a sequence of incidents with Bev, and it is in these scenes that “Hillbilly Elegy” works finest. Shut’s efficiency is over-the-top, however there’s grit and power in it.
It is tougher to seek out one thing to carry on to in Adams’ efficiency. Her character is such a loud, grating mess of fury, ache and dependancy that Adams struggles to make her coherent. It is perhaps much less the fault of Adams than the prevailing excessive pitch of the movie, which, by condensing a number of generations of wrestle, does not enable room for rumination. Howard, a humane and delicate director, has made a movie stuffed with empathy however lacking a wider lens.
And by taking politics out of “Hillbilly Elegy,” the film has unwittingly put some again in. As an alternative of a story rising from a seldom listened-to nook of the world, Howard’s movie has reversed course. Hollywood rushes in, wigs in tow.
“Hillbilly Elegy,” a Netflix launch, is rated R by the Movement Image Affiliation of America for language all through, drug content material and a few violence. Operating time: 115 minutes. Two stars out of 4.