Review

‘Hillbilly Elegy’ Is a Contrived Family Drama

See, this is what happens when you don’t give people their Oscars when they deserve them; they put on a bunch of makeup and take on heavy-handed family dramas.

“Hillbilly Elegy” is based on the memoir of the same name by J.D. Vance about his upbringing in rural Ohio, and the struggles he faces with his drug addict mother (Amy Adams) and no-nonsense grandmother (Glenn Close). Gabriel Basso portrays Vance as a young man and Owen Asztalos plays him as a boy, while Ron Howard directs.

Glenn Close is a seven-time Oscar nominee and should have finally won for her work in “The Wife,” but was upset(ish) by Olivia Coleman in “The Favourite” (the real point of contention there being most argue Coleman was a supporting role, not a lead). Not to be outdone, Amy Adams is herself a six-time nominee, and most of the time simply goes up against better competition (on two occasions even facing off against her co-stars). Much like Leonardo DiCaprio and others before them, in an all-out attempt to finally get that trophy, Close and Adams are seemingly throwing off the gloves and putting on the prosthetics, as they are both nearly unrecognizable in their roles as strict mother figures. Close is great and Adams is solid-enough, but that is about all “Hillbilly Elegy” has going for it.

From chewing scenery in “101 Dalmatians” to spewing nonsense words in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Glenn Close always seems to be enjoying her roles, even the more serious ones. She is also one of our more underrated actresses, possibly due in part to the fact she has never taken home that one elusive trophy. She may finally have her name called on Oscar night for “Hillbilly Elegy,” a role that she is almost unrecognizable in. At times sweet and caring, at others strict and sharp but never cruel, Close carries the film like her Mamaw carries the Vance clan. The scenes with Close are by far the film’s strong points, and you notice when she is not there.

Amy Adams is solid (when is she bad?) but I don’t see this landing her an Oscar nomination. This is the kind of role that actors do when they want awards, and at times you just get the “this is my Oscar scene” vibes from Adams. Her character is a free spirit but also controlling of her children, and I found it hard to root for her; but I feel that comes down to Vanessa Taylor’s script.

The film jumps back and forth between 1997 and 2011, following J.D.’s struggles as a youth then his attempt to get a summer law job at Yale. Young J.D. at times comes off like a complete idiot, and not just because he is at risk of flunking math. Some of the things he says and does, like running into a table while chasing a dog or dancing into a display in store (or saying “Native Americans know they’re going to die”) just make him seem unbelievably stupid, and it is hard to believe that this kid would grow up to attend Yale law school.

In fact, everyone in this film does not act like any person based in reality, and the script never establishes any flow. People have sudden mood swings (J.D. and his mom go from buddy-buddy to him yelling how he hates her in a matter of five seconds), and things just don’t make sense from a character standpoint (teenage J.D. turns down smoking weed but just a few scenes later is tossing back a beer like it’s nothing).

“Hillbilly Elegy” may be remembered as a Trivial Pursuit answer for “what film did Glenn Close finally win her Academy Award for?” but otherwise it is a pretty bland and at times contrived family drama. Ron Howard has made some great films, and we know he can manage family dramas, but this was just a swing and a miss on almost every level. I didn’t see myself or my family in any character, and none of them are interesting enough in their own right to root for. Just a bunch of missed opportunities given all the talent involved…

Critics Rating: 4/10

Netflix

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