By Christian DiMartino
Ron Howard’s latest film Hillbilly Elegy is perhaps his most critically annihilated since The Da Vinci Code. Here is a man who has had great success as a filmmaker, from Apollo 13 to A Beautiful Mind to Frost/Nixon, but also isn’t impervious to critical blunders. What’s particularly strange about Hillbilly Elegy though is that, despite the hatred for it, there is still, believe it or not, admiration for it.
Like it (as a select few do) or loathe it, in the back of your mind you know that something about this material had to have been a draw for such great talent. In other words, Howard and two of the greatest, non Oscar winning actresses on the planet, Amy Adams and Glenn Close, didn’t show up to this for nothing. Despite the negativity surrounding it, one could easily give Hillbilly Elegy the benefit of the doubt because of the magnitude of these two fabulous actresses.
Well folks, here it is: perhaps it’s because I’d been led to believe that this film was a dumpsterfire, and the expectations were low, but despite a somewhat wobbly start and a few scenes that either don’t work or feel cheesy, Hillbilly Elegy isn’t bad. As I see it. Others have found this to be a dreadful experience, and hey, clearly I missed something. You know what though? Here’s another bomb I’ll drop on you: you know those Ron Howard blunders, like The Da Vinci Code series and How the Grinch Stole Christmas? Yeah, I like those. Sue me.
The film tells the story of one J.D. Vance, and his family, told from when he is a child and as an adult (Gabriel Basso) in law school. It’s easy to see early on just why Vance felt the need to tell his story, because it is pretty nutty. Perhaps not one that is completely new, but one that certainly holds your interest because it’s easy to see how people like this truly exist (coming from a family with a history of drug use, I relate).
Much of the film focuses on Vance’s mother Bev (Adams), a nurse who got herself hooked on drugs around the time her father passed away. The actions of Bev hold quite the power over Vance, seeing as he was just a young lad whenever all of the chaos began. Yet once adulthood entered, we see that he broke the mold and avoided following his mother’s footsteps. This is, more than likely, thanks to his grandmother (Close), who doesn’t take any crap, and whenever Vance begins going down an unfortunate path, she whips him into shape.
Early on, the film has an over-the-top feel that feels relentless. It’s almost as if the title deserves an exclamation point at the end of its title, in the grand tradition of Darren Aronofsky’s mother! Everyone in this early segment of the movie is angry and screaming, whether it be the central characters or even secondary gas station attendants. There are also scenes every so often that perhaps worked better on paper, such as the ones with Vance’s girlfriend, played by the gorgeous Freida Pinto.
And yet I still find myself kind of recommending Hillbilly Elegy because, despite its wobbly elements, there is stuff here that works. There are moments that feel earned, there are moments that are still in my memory, so that says something. It’s also a decent story, one that perhaps you know the outcome of, but considering Vance’s journey getting there, you won’t mind getting to it.
When it comes down to it though, Hillbilly Elegy might (and definitely is to some) have been a mediocrity if it weren’t for Adams and Close. Basso is pretty good too, but his younger counterpart is so-so. Yet it’s Adams and Close who really elevate this material. Not that that news is particularly shocking, but both give commanding performances that are more than worthy of attention.
Adams is capable of many things, and yet she hasn’t really done anything quite like this before. It’s a strong, sad and totally believable portrait of a woman who flew off the rails, yet there’s also more to her than meets the eye. As for Close, and call me crazy for this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she won an Academy Award for this. Yes, with seven nominations, it’s insane that she hasn’t won, and she’s way overdue. To further that though, she is pretty great in this. If Close hadn’t been credited, I may not have known it was her. She completely transforms here, and yet there’s more to what she does here than just the transformation. Particularly in the latter half, Close about runs away with the movie.
The film isn’t quite the success it aspires to be, but with a solid story and great acting keeping it afloat, Hillbilly Elegy is one that is at least worth a look. If my mild rave leads you astray, my apologies.