MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Drama/ Stars: Glenn Close, Amy Adams, Gabriel Basso, Owen Asztalos, Haley Bennett, Freida Pinto, Bo Hopkins, Stephen Kunken/ Runtime: 116 minutes
I feel it is safe to start this review off by stating that as notoriously cynical as I am known for being, I still feel that it would take a serious dosage of cynicism in order for me to come even remotely close to believing that any serious artist in the world of entertainment be it film, music, whatever would contribute to the world some work whose only purpose of existence was no more and no less than trying to earn those involved a nice pretty trophy even if the phrase “award baiting” does have a degree of merit to it especially when plastered on to the vibe a distinct slice of cinematic pie manages to exude. Indeed instead of just simply being the desired outcome for why they were created, some slices of cinematic pie seem to simply have no particular reason for existence beyond being the kind of film that typically catches the eye and mind of those who vote in certain academies and the like to determine who gets the prizes they award every year. Yet while these films usually have an ingredient that they show off more than the rest of what went into the film like performances, production work, costumes/make-up, musical score, etc. they also don’t really have too much to show off in terms of narrative. It saddens me therefore to tell you movie goers that Ron Howard’s new drama from this year known as Hillbilly Elegy is the kind of film I just described in vivid detail. I mean don’t get me wrong: from an acting point of view this is actually quite engaging due to screen icons Amy Adams and Glenn Close both portraying dotty and flawed women of the backcountry so to speak who, despite their flaws, still try to do good by their family and they both manage to fairly good work in this. Unfortunately that is where the meat of this particular dish runs out however. This is because this film, based on a real-life individual’s memoir of the same name, does not have a genuine narrative to regale you with and keep you interested, but has decided from the start to keep you distracted from that aspect by bringing in a non-linear method of telling the narrative and extra emphasis on the drama going on. Other than the fine roles in this by Adams and Close though, this truly is just another by the numbers about family drama and accepting where you come from that we have seen time and time again thus making this at a lot of points a complete slog to sit through.
The plot is as follows: Operating back and forth like a frog going to and fro amongst a group of lily pads between both a core narrative that is taking place in 2011 as well as specific things which occurred back in that decade known as the 1990s, the film is one which weaves its way through the life of a young man by the name of J.D. Vance. Mr. Vance, we are able to perceive quite quickly, is a young man from a shattered home life who is trying to better himself by engaging in law studies as a grad student at no less than Yale (fancy). Yet while in the middle of attempting to secure himself a summer job that could aid him immensely both in paying his tuition and being able to be with his girlfriend in D.C., J.D.’s life is thrown for a serious curveball courtesy of a phone call from his sister who proceeds to tell him that their Mom has been hitting up heroin, went too far with it, and is now in the hospital as a result. Yet, despite waiting to hear about a possible last interview which could lead him to a terrific job, J.D. decides to hop in his car and make an impromptu road trip back home to his family who reside in Ohio. Once there we see that his mom, a woman by the name of Bev, has managed to acquire a speedy discharge from the hospital courtesy of her insurance lapsing, and our intrepid hero is the one saddled with attempting to find her a place both to recover and to once again try and rehabilitate herself from the drugs. Yet by doing this, we soon see that this results in a smorgasbord of memories flooding through the mind of our protagonist. Memories that include his teen years which were filled to the brim with drama courtesy not only of his family’s economic status, but also his mom and her various addictions and issues, and of course his bond with his stubborn yet loving grandma known in the family simply as Mamaw….
Now this film is an adaptation of an autobiography by the same name and I must say that the very scattered manner this film utilizes in telling its tale is one that is a direct reflection of its source material. This is because no matter if you try to read the book or try to watch the film you feel like you are simply sifting through a bunch of memories that don’t really have any set narrative structure or reason for being told to them. Not only that, but the character of J.D. Vance really is one of the more rote and one-dimensional protagonists I have seen in a while. A fact that becomes a lot more apparent when we never are a witness to anything he has accomplished or given any context for just how far he has come in his life. Indeed he really is the worst kind of protagonist as all of the action revolves around him, but never being carried out through him thus giving this film no wiggle room to expand and grow in. As a result, and with no distinct character arcs to be found, this slice of cinematic pie is left to function as a barely sketched together anthology story revolving around some guy from Ohio. Yet while this format does result in a few potent from a dramatic standpoint vignettes of sorts, it really is quite difficult to sit through especially when it is stretched out to 4 minutes shy of 2 hours. To that end, this film’s main asset is in the personalities involved and even though this results in some genuinely good performances that is still nowhere close to providing the foundation that this film needs in order to succeed let alone work.
Now with all of that being said, it should be noted that far and away, Ron Howard filmography pun intended, the single best ingredient that this cinematic has going for it is the performance given by Amy Adams. A fact that is perhaps a bit intriguing since she really is not playing the most pleasant individual in the world. Yes the character of Bev is one who adores her family and wants to give them the best that she possibly can, but at the same time she is also an individual suffering from both mental health issues and an ongoing conflict with addiction that Adams uses to give us some moments in the film that are downright scorching in intensity. Suffice it to say that this is a character who doesn’t have in any way the fortitude we have come to expect from Adams and the roles she plays thus making this a powerful yet also quite the degenerate at points character. Suffice it to say then that whilst this is not what we usually see from Adams, it is still nevertheless a quite impressive performance that manages to also function as further proof of her talents as an actor. Now with Adams clearly going for the award for Best Actress, this puts our other great performance from screen icon Glenn Close in combat for Best Supporting Actress and I honestly think she might do fairly well with her part in this. Yes it’s the stereotypical role of the matriarch of a familial unit who manages to get things done no matter what, but Close does look she is having a blast as this character. Indeed there is a distinct unpleasant vibe to her courtesy of the character’s oft-showcased sense of bigotry, but nevertheless it is a genuine metamorphosis kind of work from the celebrated actress right down to some astonishing work from the hair and make-up departments which permit to immerse herself 100% into the part.
All in all after years of experience in writing reviews for a wide assortment of movies movie lover, I will be the first to admit to you that it is never ever a bad thing for a slice of cinematic pie to have the honor of being blessed with not one, but rather a pair of truly incredible performances that help the film come even more vividly to life than all the effects work in the world could hope to possibly be able to pull off. Indeed an example of such a film would have to be Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy from 1995, 2004, and 2013 respectively where the performances of Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke are so electrifying that everything else seems to fall into place and in the process rises up to their level and thus helps to make those films as beautiful and timeless as they are and always will be. Yet with that being said, there is of course a flip side to this coin and that is the side which says that dynamic duo of truly magnetic turns can become something perilous and detrimental to the overall quality of the film when those performances are, upon viewing the finished film, somehow someway all that it really has to offer up as enticement for a moviegoer to engage in watching the film in the first place; a fact that becomes even more shocking with a film like this when you consider, among other details, the pedigree of the person who is at the helm of bringing this film to life. Suffice it to say then that, thanks in huge part to the phenomenal work done herein by iconic film actresses Amy Adams and Glenn Close, the film that goes by the title of Hillbilly Elegy is a film that may show up quite a bit in the months to come courtesy of quite possibly, not going to say for sure, either being read aloud on square index card-shaped cards that are yanked out of envelopes by celebrities the awards committees have “politely asked” to be there or when the time comes to just announce nominees in general. Yet out of all the parties involved, I have to say that it really is just a crying shame that should you be the kind of movie goer to view a film due in vast majority to that kind of hype then I can assure that you will be left scratching your head and confused as heck at best and literally disappointed to the point of heartwrenching sobs that you just lost a couple of hours of life you can now never ever get back no matter what you do at worst. Indeed make of that dear reader what you will and for the love of everything good and holy tread lightly around this film. On a scale of 1-5 I give Hillbilly Elegy a solid 2.5 out of 5.