Family dramas often walk a real fine line. Too much sap, it trips and falls into the soapy pits of despair. Too little, and it’s hard to really relate and care about any of the characters. Hillbilly Elegy really, really tries to balance the two, but ends up falling squarely into the former camp; despite the star talent involved.
I won’t beat around the bush: frankly, I’m kind of surprised this was helmed by Ron Howard, was penned by an award-winning screenwriter, and has two very respectable stars in it. I was completely dumbfounded fairly early on when the out-of-place voiceover started to sink in; wondering if I had accidentally started an early ‘90s made-for-TV film instead.
While you could argue the crux of the film is generational pain between Amy Adams and Glenn Close (who plays her mother, “Mamaw”), much of the screen time is actually centered around Adams’ on-screen son, J.D. That’s in part due to the source material (penned by the actual J.D. Vance), and it’s absolutely to this film’s detriment.
Whenever J.D. is on-screen, the pacing and emotion grinds to a halt. That happens pretty much throughout the film actually, fairly consistently, but the combination of poorly written and delivered voiceovers alongside of J.D.’s issues make for one of the dullest stories of 2020. Pretty much every other decision, from the soundtrack choices to the editing, is questionable and Lifetime movie-esque. How Howard and company blew $45 million on this project is beyond me.
When Close, and to a lesser extent, Adams are on-screen, it can work. They do have a connection at times during the more explosive moments of the tale, even if some of them are so bombastic and absurd that they feel out of place with the rest of the tone. But as soon as the narrative shifts to college-age J.D., things grind to a halt.
It’s completely all over the place, jumping to and fro between timelines with flashbacks like it was nothing; all to deliver heavy-handed faux emotional undertones or a ton of exposition. It’s messy and it’s unfortunate. The whole thing needed to be completely redone from top to bottom to truly fit as an adaptation, perhaps farther removed from Vance’s (frankly problematic) source material.
I bet when Hillbilly Elegy was being filmed, the cast probably had a good feeling about it. With tighter editing and a different lead (say Robert Pattinson), it could have been something great. As it stands, it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing.