Monday, December 14, 2020

Hollywood Hill People: Hillbilly Elegy

Haley Bennett, Gabriel Basso and Amy Adams in Hillbilly Elegy. (Photo: Lacey Terrell/Netflix)

It’s hard to believe that Ron Howard, the skillful technician and entertainer who directed Frost/Nixon and Rush and In the Heart of the Sea, could also have turned out the new Hillbilly Elegy. But in a sense he didn’t. It was made by that other Ron Howard, the one who gave us A Beautiful Mind, which turned Sylvia Nasar’s brilliant biography of the mathematician John Nash into a fairy tale and was about as profound an exploration of mental illness as The Snake Pit, and Cinderella Man, which turned an exciting boxing narrative into an emotionally manipulative David-and-Goliath story pumped out of a Depression-era tearjerker, and Apollo 13, which felt like a promo for the NASA space program. All seven of these movies are based on real-life stories, so why are some of them so convincing and the others so hopelessly phony?

Hillbilly Elegy is based on the bestselling memoir by J.D. Vance, who grew up in a disadvantaged, beleaguered family of hill people transplanted to Ohio and, despite his raging druggie mother, was given such solid grounding by his grandmother, Mamaw, with whom he lived with during the crucial years of his adolescent development, that he excelled in school, got a college education and landed at Yale Law School. The book is often moving, though it runs into trouble when Vance descends into special pleading to make the case – irrelevant to his story, in any case – for his Republican leanings and those of his community. Vance and Vanessa Taylor, who co-authored the screenplay, have, predictably, eliminated the politics in the last section of the source material, but except for Owen Asztalos’s sweet, sensitive performance as the young J.D. I didn’t believe a word. Hillbilly Elegy is like a Lifetime Channel movie, only way better lit (the cinematography is by Maryse Alberti) – or like a Ross Hunter melodrama from the fifties or sixties, only way more earnest. The baroque excesses may have been eliminated, but we’re still watching movie actors putting on a show, in this case pretending to be poor folks trapped in cycles of abuse and addiction. In 2020 terms, it’s still blown-up Hollywood tripe, with sequences shaped to make points, like the one where grown-up J.D. (Gabriel Basso), who has to call his girlfriend (Freida Pinto) to explain which fork is used for which course at a dinner interview for a job at a law firm, tells off a prospective employer who’s condescending about his background. (He gets the job anyway, of course.) Or the one where, after Mamaw buys him the expensive calculator he needs for math class – bailing him out of hot water when he’s tried to steal it – and banishes his stoner pals, he comes home waving the algebra test on which he achieved the highest marks in the class.

As Bev, J.D.’s intractable mother, Amy Adams gives an all-out, Oscar-bait performance that isn’t much different from the set-jaw, teeth-gritting ones Susan Hayward used to give in movies like I’ll Cry Tomorrow and I Want to Live! (And she did win the Academy Award, finally, for I Want to Live!) At least Adams isn’t ridiculous like Glenn Close, who plays Mamaw as if she were Mammy Yokum. Basso matches up well physically with Asztalos, but he’s insipid, and there’s so little chemistry between him and Pinto that you don’t buy them as a couple. As J.D.’s sister Lindsay, Haley Bennett works hard and she isn’t bad, but she can’t transcend the crummy writing and the synthetic direction. Taylor wrote Hope Springs, where the characters were caricatures, and The Shape of Water, which was a fable about fascism; I don’t think I would have put her to work on a coming-of-age, triumph-of-the-spirit story about a young man who manages to transcend his background while remaining loyal to his family. J.D. Vance’s tale is truth-based, but the movie of Hillbilly Elegy is hokum.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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