Published Nov 13, 2020Although it was always true, 2020 was really the year that hammered it home — society has no real need for celebrities. The rich and famous, with their perfect pouts and prominent cheekbones, have spent the last 12 months covering John Lennon, pretending to cry in ill-informed racism PSAs and forced their in-home careworkers to dress up for Halloween. And while they were roasted to oblivion the entire time, the celebs still thought they were saving the world. ("I can only say that I meant to do something good and pure, and it didn't transcend," Gal Gadot told Vanity Fair of her viciously mocked "Imagine" cover, which set the tone for the year in the worst possible way.) And now here's Hillbilly Elegy — an Oscar-baiting adaptation of a debunked memoir about poverty that was directed by the guy who made Splash.
Written by J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy dropped in June 2016 and quickly became a de facto primer on "those people" who supposedly voted for Donald Trump around the time of the American election. The book tells the story of Vance being raised by his Kentucky family in Middletown, Ohio, tapping into the values of their Appalachian roots. And while the story offers plenty of harrowing details about Vance's mother and her struggle with drug addiction, many criticized the author for painting working-class America with broad and overwhelmingly white strokes, with The New Republic's Sarah Jones summing up Vance as a "the false prophet of Blue America." Of course, an offensively oversimplified look at America's problems is perfect fodder for Oscar season.
Enter Ron Howard, whose adaptation is a cartoonishly self-serious, ill-timed mess. Like the book, the film follows two timelines — J.D. as a boy (Owen Asztalos) and J.D. as a Yale student (Gabriel Basso). No matter what he does, his upbringing in Ohio (which is tied to Appalachia somehow, it's not really clear) follows him. He has brutal flashbacks about his mother (Amy Adams) revolving around her mental illness and opioid addiction. He can't figure out which dinner roll belongs to him while he hobnobs with upper crust elites. And you can bet your damn ass he's not going to let you say the hard-R slur ("redneck"). The film's narrative is built around a job interview at an elite law firm, which J.D. must attempt to make via a 10-hour drive after he's been forced home to help his mom get into rehab again.
The movie is packed to the gills with dramedy tropes, from its Hans Zimmer-led score to its post-Malick/Greengrass cinematography, which makes it look less like an art film and more like an off-season Marvel origin story. (Will we ever see the Hillbilly cross paths with Doctor Strange?) There are also scenes of forced jubilance that will give you full-body shivers, like a moment where Amy Adams' character roller skates through the hospital where she works while tripping on painkillers.
Of course, most hilarious of all is the performances from leads Amy Adams and Glenn Close, who have a combined 13 Oscar nominations between them and zero wins. You can sense the desperation as they belt out every line, caked in makeup to look poor, and Close in particular looking like a mad scientist from a YTV special with her comically large glasses and oversized wig.
Their performances, practically frothing at the mouth for Academy recognition, serve to highlight the dialogue, which almost redeems the film as the most quotable in recent memory: "I don't care if it's the Baby Jesus, it's Easter goddamnit! Get your ass in here!" Amy Adams screeches in one scene. "I figure everyone in this world is one of three kinds: a good Terminator, a bad Terminator, and neutral," Glenn Close wisely whispers.
If it sounds a little familiar, that's because Howard is likely borrowing from his peer Robert Zemeckis: the film feels an awful lot like it could be called Forrest Trump. But it's likely too pandering to have a similar award's season bite. As the credits role, we see Vance's real family (and it becomes clear who they were trying — and failing — to make Glenn Close look like) and remember that this is about a real family whose real struggles are both relatable and brutal for millions of families around the globe. We're also reminded of the stunning lack of authenticity in the 116 minutes that preceded them, a mess of screaming celebs in prosthetics stomping around an Ohio influenced by Kentucky that was actually filmed in Georgia to make the most of that state's sizeable tax credit. (Netflix)