2020, R, 116 min. Directed by Ron Howard. Starring Gabriel Basso, Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Owen Asztalos, Haley Bennett, Freida Pinto, Sunny Mabrey.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Nov. 20, 2020
Can we all just admit, right off the bat, that Ron Howard's latest slice of middle American misery porn is a Lifetime movie with a bigger budget and a higher-profile-than-usual cast?
It's adapted from J.D. Vance's best-selling but widely disaparaged autobiography, and its depiction is of a white Southern working class that just needs to grab hold of its bootstraps and pull, pull, pull. Liberal readers saw it as a glimpse into what they were getting wrong about the Rust Belt (because the left loves nothing more than a good dose of self-castigation). The right touted it for validating its viewpoint about self-reliance: After all, Vance had gone from crappy jobs in small town Ohio to becoming a venture capitalist (is that really an improvement, one asks?), but nuthin' like them bootstraps, right?
Howard, mercifully, dumps most of Vance's political cant in favor of a maudlin, slow rehab drama, carried on the backs of a cavalcade of wafer-thin characters – Basso as the noble but conflicted J.D. (with Asztalos as his chubby, awkward younger self in extensive flashbacks), Close as the sharp but kindly Mamaw, and Adams under a layer of artful mess as his heroin-happy mother, Bev. They argue, Bev relapses, gets straight, relapses, go back to the ancestral home in Kentucky, rinse, repeat.
Unfortunately, Howard can't completely shrug off Vance's core thesis that these rednecks just need to get their shit together. The broad strokes are right, but the details are off in this multigenerational drama, and that's where the dangers lie. Some of the scenes are borderline absurd, like Vance calling his upper-crust girlfriend so she can explain how to use cutlery at a fancy dinner. If that seems like a clumsy way to depict white working class blues, that's the least of its sins: If your way of depicting the institutional barriers that face the poor is a sniffy gag about bourgeois dining habits, you just don't understand the problems. It's a film that just doesn't get it: Like the sequence in one of an interminable series of cookouts (does no one use their kitchen in Kentucky?), the conversation about recommending rehabs feels like a transplanted Hollywood party. And, yes, the "three kinds of Terminator" speech that is highlighted in the trailer, and will clearly feature in any misguided "For Your Consideration" sizzle rolls, is as bad and inauthentic in context as out.
It's a glossy, cleaned-up, monolithically white version of the heartland. Literally the only Black person in the first half hour is a cop who intercedes while Beth is beating seven shades out of teen J.D. in some stranger's house. (Oddly, most authority figures are Black, which is astounding considering how Vance's book pig-headedly avoided racism as a problem in the South).
As for releasing this defanged apologia for the working whites that clog up every "What do Trump voters think?" cable news vox pop segment right now, that's just misguided. But the utter cluelessness of the script, the reliance upon trite wisdoms about family, the stupefying oversimplification of it all, make Hillbilly Elegy as artificial as the near-meat in the fried bologna sandwich that J.D.'s sister serves him as a good ol' taste of home.