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Ron Howard misses the mark with 'Hillbilly Elegy,' which is overwrought, underwatchable
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Ron Howard misses the mark with 'Hillbilly Elegy,' which is overwrought, underwatchable

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"Hillbilly Elegy” wants to have it both ways.

On the one hand, it argues that stereotyping people from Appalachia is wrong. And on the other hand, it stereotypes people from Appalachia.

Nowhere, incidentally, does it use the word “hillbilly,” which is a relief. That term hasn’t been uttered in at least 40 years, except for the classic Austin Lounge Lizards song “Hillbillies in a Haunted House” and the bestselling 2016 memoir on which this film is based, also called “Hillbilly Elegy.”

The book by J.D. Vance tells the story of his family, which moved from Appalachia to Ohio when he was a child and was beset by dysfunction and other problems of its own making. The book carries the subtitle “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” but the film drops any hint of interest in the culture and concentrates exclusively on the family.

Native St. Louisan Gabriel Basso stars as J.D., a student at Yale Law School who receives a call that his mother has overdosed on heroin. Despite having an upcoming interview for a summer internship at a prestigious law firm, he dashes home to Middletown, Ohio, to make sure his mother receives adequate health care.

In a series of flashbacks, he reflects on his family’s chronic problems, the serial abuse he received as a child by his unreliable and addicted mother and his apparently harsh grandmother. With such an upbringing of constant turmoil, it is hard for him to recognize the love they were offering.

Ron Howard, who has made so many wonderful films (“Apollo 13,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Cinderella Man,” “Splash”) badly misses the mark this time. “Elegy” is right — the picture is lumbering, dreary and heavy handed.

It is as if Howard does not fully understand the people whose story he is telling, so he feels compelled to force-feed the audience with the obvious points he is trying to make.

It’s not just the treacly photography by Maryse Alberti (“The Wrestler,” “Velvet Goldmine”) and the treacly music by David Fleming (“Chicago Fire”) and Hans Zimmer (seemingly everything else). Howard’s dull but overwrought approach to the story also extends to the acting.

Amy Adams, who plays the addicted mother, and Glenn Close, who plays the tough-love grandmother, are clearly participating in some sort of unofficial scenery-chewing contest. To be honest, all their wild histrionics and Oscar-grasping drama are kind of fun to watch, but at no time do they let us forget that they are actors who are acting, and acting with all the force they can muster.

Basso, on the other hand, appears to be trying to counteract their theatrics by ferociously underplaying his role. As J.D. he is a cypher, a cypher wrapped in an emptiness inside a void.

The only actor who stands out as genuinely believable is Owen Asztalos, who plays J.D. as a boy and young teen. You see the pain in his eyes, the conflict in the set of his mouth. An actor since age 3, he clearly remembers the power of subtlety in his performance, a lesson that was seemingly forgotten by everyone else on set.

To Howard’s credit, the movie does eventually improve somewhat toward the end. We finally get a sense of where it is going and why, and by that point we have become inured to the shrill acting and slow-footed direction.

If you do stick it out that long, be sure to stay for the credits, where photos and videos of the real people depicted in the story are shown. The makeup department did an exceptional job with Close, who looks exactly like the real grandmother.

If only the rest of the cast and crew had displayed such talent.

In theaters now and available Nov. 24 on Netflix.

What “Hillbilly Elegy” • 1½ stars out of four • Run time 1:56 • Rating R • Content Language throughout, drug use and some violence

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