Hillbilly Elegy (2020)
Rated R for crassness, drug use, addiction, and violence. Sure, I could throw smoking in there too. A lot of these vices involve minors, which makes it worse. It's odd, because the tone of the movie is so an attempt to be a tear-jerker. But there's a lot in here that would justify an R rating, so don't try pushing this one off on a younger audience. R.
DIRECTOR: Ron Howard
I'm going to be a bully, aren't I? Like, I don't want to go down this road. I want to be able to go to bed knowing that I brought joy and happiness into the world. Instead, I'm going to be dunking on a child actor. This movie is pretty bad. A lot of people before me pointed out how bad it was. But I kept on seeing clips of Amy Adams acting the crap out of this role, so I wondered why it was so rough. Well, besides the fact that I fell asleep harder than I ever had and that I ended up laughing audibly at some terrible scenes, I did eventually get through it to comment on how this movie completely fell apart.
A lot of this comes down to the performance by Owen Asztalos. I honestly don't blame him for how bad the performance came across. He's laughably bad in this role, especially when he's across from Amy Adams and Glenn Close, who are giving performances of a lifetime. I saw this kid's other credits and he seemed pretty functional in those roles. (Sure, some of them are borderline unnamed, but I'm grasping for something here.) The thing that I kept repeating while watching this movie is that it was directed by Ron Howard. You know, the most famous child actor ever? These are scenes that are about nuance. While I don't necessarily find J.D. Vance's story all that compelling, I do acknowledge that he's the foundation for this movie functioning. Mind you, I don't love Gabriel Basso's performance either, so at least the young J.D. and the old J.D. feel like the same person. But J.D. needs to function as both the narrator for this piece and the emotionally resonant character.
The point of Hillbilly Elegy is that we sympathize with J.D. He is the character who is the product of circumstance. He lives with a mother with addiction, who exhibits love in her own way. The world around him encourages generational poverty, crushing dreams at every opportunity. So when J.D. kind of comes across like Mr. Bean, stumbling and bumbling into every scene, it is hard not to laugh at these moments. There is just scene and scene of spatially unaware J.D. running into something that he shouldn't be running into. At one point, I honestly thought that he would walk into a scene, unable to remove a turkey from his head. I don't know how the other actors were able to function and get such deep moments.
I had no idea that performances had to be so rich to generate sympathy. What Howard does manage to succeed at is the portrayal of Bev and Mamaw. I know that Glenn Close is up for the Academy Award and I think she totally deserves the nomination. But really, Amy Adams is the emotional center for me. I think that Close is getting the attention because she physically looks the part that she's playing and that the makeup team absolutely nailed the visual of Mamaw. But Bev is where we have those ups and downs. Bev is just a mess. Bev is the family member who continually ruins Christmas. She has moments of genuine love and kindness. But given the opportunity to choose between the right and the wrong, Bev will always make the wrong choice. Intellectually, we then feel for J.D. J.D. is the one who keeps on having to live with her choices. It's comes to a head when J.D. is encouraged to provide a clean urine sample from Mamaw.
It is interesting that Mamaw is considered the morally responsible character of the story. I mean, she is. She's the one who has this exile element to their lives. She is aware of how sad Middletown, Ohio is (which isn't too far from my house!). But Mamaw is both of the world and outside of the world. She sees the potential that J.D. carries around him and realizes that he needs tough love. But she's also the woman who made Bev what she is. She's the woman who asked a good kid to provide a clean urine sample for his mom, which only enables her bad behavior. I mean, for as much as we love Mamaw, Bev is still a hot mess in the future. She's somehow a bigger mess in the present day and a lot of it could possibly be connected to the decision that Mamaw and J.D. made in the past. I know that I'm oversimplifying addiction, but J.D.'s temper tantrum is valid.
I find the future version of the narrative more interesting. It's odd how I think of the Veronica Mars movie while I watched this. I know. I'm very deep and well-rounded. The Veronica Mars movie was all about Veronica leaving her law practice to return to Neptune, a dump, to help her father. In that story, Veronica finds the value of family and passion. She realizes that Neptune is more of a part of her than New York. J.D. abandons Yale Law (?), but has quite the opposite experience. Returning home to Middletown only fills him with shame. There's nothing that he really finds valuable in the town. Even his sister, who seems to have really cared for him, seems to only be a silver lining to a crummy situation. But the movie, based on a real story, takes the whole thing as a binary thing. I find it weird that J.D. doesn't take his mom with him to the interview. Like, leaving her in a hotel is a terrible idea. I get that junkies are manipulative, but it seems pretty obvious what's going to happen.
I hear the book is better. I know. I shouldn't be commenting on this, even if I had read the book. The book and the movie have to be different things. But I'm told that the book is super fun. This was just a slog through the misery of mid-Western values. Yeah, J.D. Vance may not be this great guy in real life either, based on his Twitter account. But there's no love for the things that were good. Instead, J.D., because of how bleak the story gets, comes across as completely judgmental. It's hard to really bond with a movie that only shows us misery. Yeah, we have small moments involving calculators. But it seems like we're in the dumps the entire time and nothing brings moments of joy. It's just a bummer of a film overall that bored me to tears when I wasn't laughing at a weak performance.
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Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.