Far from the great film it could have been, this isn’t the worst film of the year, like fellow reviewers have stated. Hillbilly Elegy is the latest Netflix original film and a failed Oscar bait from director Ron Howard. Despite being an Oscar winner, Howard is a hit or miss director, especially in the past 15 years. For every Frost/Nixon or Rush, we get a The Dilemma or this.
Based on the memoir of the same name by J. D. Vance, a Yale law student, who is drawn back to his Ohio hometown due to a family emergency. Back in his hometown, he grapples with three generations of family history, Appalachian values, and the American dream.
While both Amy Adams and Glenn Close do solid work in this, this is one of the saddest examples of two great Oscar-less actresses doing Oscar-bait material that screams “PLEASE give me an Oscar.”
Amy Adams does an excellent job of portraying a damaged individual, maybe a little too well. Instead of feeling sorry for her, I found myself hating her character and finding her annoying. A mediocre script lets her down, but she does her best with what she had. She tries going for the heartstrings because her character is one that we should feel sympathy for, but she had too many overacting instances that I couldn’t feel what the performance was aiming for. Despite the performance not hitting the highs I would have liked, this is Amy Adams we’re talking about, and as usual, it’s still a good enough performance.
When that first trailer dropped, I thought this would be the film to finally get Glenn Close the Oscar she should have won 33 years ago for Fatal Attraction. She is the heart of the film and gives the best performance in the movie, being charismatic and emotionally compelling. Despite that, I wouldn’t say this was an Oscar-winning performance. I doubt she will get nominated, let alone win, but it would be a definitive career Oscar win if that did somehow happen. A quick thing I do want to point out is the fantastic work the make-up department did because she looks exactly like the real Mamaw. Plus, I love that, like me, her character’s favorite movie is Terminator 2: Judgement Day.
Despite my issues with the script, I will say the film has the right message about sticking up and being there for family no matter the circumstances. It also shows the harsh realities that many people face in the Deep Southern states. The film is very conservative, so the negative backlash it’s getting isn’t too shocking. Not to get too political, but the characters in this film are the people I expect would vote for Trump.
The film has the terrible luck of coming out in the wrong era. In the 90s, this would have been received a lot better. The style and characters reminded me of Sling Blade a bit with its depiction of the south. Ron Howard is one of the safest directors there is. His directing is never really out of this world, and this is no exception. His direction in this film is professional. It’s good enough to work, which got the emotions it was going for. I’m just personally tired of these kinds of films. I’ve seen similar stories too often.
The way the film was structured is something I disliked. The constant flashback sequences were hit or miss for me, with the continuous-time jumping messing with the film’s pacing. A scene could be building momentum and then we would cut away to another time period. That cinematic technique made the film seem repetitive to me.
Despite the film’s almost 2-hour length, it left me wanting a bit more. It features all those formulaic plot points developed in this type of film – lousy parenting, drug addiction, bullying, and discrimination – and I was left ready to see more.
It’s crazy to me that this film was written by Oscar nominee Vanessa Taylor, a woman. With how terrible the women were written in this film, you would think a man wrote this film. All the women in the movie were portrayed as terrible and distasteful. While her script does give Amy and Glenn some Oscar highlight scenes, most of her script is super cringy. Her storytelling choices, like the previously mentioned constant flashbacks, didn’t work. The present scenes were the weakest aspect of the film, and I found myself more entertained and invested in the past. Honestly, the whole story should have taken place with just the ending showing Vance’s Yale graduation.
Gabriel Basso, who played the adult J.D., gives a terrible performance. He looked out of place, acting opposite Amy Adams, who was above what he brought to the table even in one of her weaker performances. The present scenes are the lowest parts of the film, and his terrible acting doesn’t make matters any better. Owen Asztalos, who plays young J.D., is miles away better than Basso. Asztalos has the luck of past scenes being the best part of the film. Plus, he gets the chance to act opposite BOTH Amy and Glenn, which Basso doesn’t. Despite playing the same role, J.D., as a teenager, comes off a lot more likable. It helps that younger J.D. suffers through more moments of sympathy.
For a film that was released during Thanksgiving week, this is far from the family-friendly movie advertised. As one of the most disappointing films of the year, this is the definition of failed Oscar bait. It’s a film I won’t remember much about in days. It’s merely forgettable.