Review: Hillbilly Elegy (2020)

Director: Ron Howard
Screenwriter: Vanessa Taylor
Starring: Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Haley Bennett, Owen Asztalos
Genre: Drama
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout, drug content, and some violence
Release Dates: 11/11 (Theatres); 11/24/20 (Streaming)
Runtime: 1h 56min
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 25%
Where to Watch: Netflix
Oscar Nomination(s): Likely–Supporting Actress (Close), Make-up/Hairstyling; Possible–Actress (Adams), Production Design; Long-Shot–Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Costume Design, Editing

I put off watching the critically-reviled Hillbilly Elegy, based on the memoir by J.D. Vance, for as long as possible; I tend to avoid a movie with poor reviews, unless I’m really interested in it and/or it’s nominated for one or more awards (especially when it comes to the Oscars). Elegy’s only positive remarks have mostly been in regards to Glenn Close’s transformative performance, and some say she may [finally] win an Oscar [for Supporting Actress] — but that’s what they said about her performance in The Wife, and she lost to Olivia Colman (who she’s up against again). 

What’s there to say about this terrible movie that hasn’t already been said? Close is probably the film’s only redeeming quality, and while her work is impressive and not nearly as showy as one might expect in this type of role, the rest of the film is so poorly-made (sometimes laughably so) that I’m not even sure it’s worth watching just for Close. But, it’s the type of role that Academy voters tend to like, despite the deep dislike (and hatred) for the movie; it’s similar to Allison Janney’s Oscar-winning [also transformative] work in I, Tonya, except that that movie is 1,000 times better.

I have long been a fan of Amy Adams, who, like Close, has received numerous Oscar nominations but no wins thus far; Adams was unfairly snubbed for the best performance of her career in Arrival, one of my favorite movies ever. In Elegy, though, she gives perhaps her worst performance, which consists of a lot of shouting and over-acting — not something I’d expect from someone as talented as her. I’m going to place the blame mostly on director Ron Howard, who used to make great movies (remember the Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind?). His direction of the actors and scenes is so bad that it makes me wonder how this could happen to such an esteemed filmmaker.

The blame also rests on screenwriter Vanessa Taylor, who adapted Vance’s memoir (which I haven’t read). It can be difficult to adapt memoirs into movies, especially when you don’t have a screenwriter whose adept enough at doing so. I imagine Vance’s book is much more interesting than Taylor’s interpretation, which is chock-full of cringy dialogue, moments, and scenes that never come together or add up to anything. Even though I’m a staunch liberal, I would’ve preferred a more political approach to the material; there are only small hints at the character’s conservative upbringing and beliefs. Taylor’s script is also structured very poorly, as it attempts to navigate [primarily] between two time periods, and sometimes it’s unclear which is a flashback and which isn’t — aside from a different actor playing the main character at different ages.

On that note, we never get any real reason to empathize with who’s supposed to be the protagonist, aside from when he saves a turtle at the beginning of the movie (almost a literal “save the cat” moment). I actually found the teenage actor (Owen Asztalos) to be more compelling and authentic than the adult version (Gabriel Basso), who is fairly lifeless for most of his screen time. He does have one scene towards the end that shows at least some emotion, but he arrives at it too quickly, and accompanied by a terribly put-together montage. 

I could probably write a whole book about everything that’s wrong with this movie. What keeps me from assigning it the lowest grade imaginable is Close’s performance, but I don’t think it’s enough to win her the Oscar, nor is it enough to make me recommend that anyone watch this. (If you want to see her at work, just look up a clip on YouTube).