Glenn Close and Amy Adams are perennial Oscar bridesmaids who could have strutted up the aisle if “Hillbilly Elegy” had been a little better.
Giving both women juicy roles that show their range, director Ron Howard unfortunately fails to explain why their story is important.
Based on J.D. Vance’s bestseller, it could have been a deeper look at the divide between red and blue states, particularly now. Instead, it’s a cold acting exercise that says little about the lessons Vance learned straddling both worlds.
His mother, Bev (Adams), was trained as a nurse but keeps losing jobs when addiction gets the best of her. That means parenting is left to Mamaw (Close), Bev’s mother. She’s a crusty old woman who views life in terms of “Terminator” dynamics and is never too far from a cigarette.
We encounter J.D. (Gabriel Basso) when he’s a student at Yale and he’s called home to deal with his mother, who has had a heroin overdose. When he tries to get her into rehab, flashbacks flesh out the story. Bev doesn’t take responsibility for her actions; she’s constantly painting herself as a victim. Mamaw isn’t much better. She has her own rough patch and a rocky relationship with her daughter. But she knows J.D. and his sister (Haley Bennett, in a nice, subdued performance) won’t thrive without guidance.
Glimpses of the privileged life J.D. leads are simple at best. He doesn’t know what silverware to use at an important dinner; he’s unsure how to act around people who didn’t struggle. Similarly, he isn’t at ease with the folks at home. When he attempts to steal a calculator as a teenager, Mamaw steps in and shows him the error of his ways.
Clearly, this is like “Green Book” – a “sanitized for your protection” look at a different lifestyle. Bev never quite catches a break – or the effect she has on her children. Mamaw never softens, even when she gets plenty of credit from the grandson she raised.
There’s a lot that Howard leaves between the cracks of the story but he isn’t afraid to let Close and Adams act up a storm. Both deliver – in big ways – but you wonder why they even bothered.
Close – who could win that elusive Oscar – hides under big T-shirts, oversized glasses and an uncontrolled wig. Adams delivers every line with an air of defiance. Together, they're electric. Apart, they’re like a miscast Jodie Foster.
Owen Asztalos, as the younger J.D., is more successful at nuance than Basso. You can see the struggle. Basso has already leaned in and there’s not quite the crisis of conscience, particularly when he has to deal with his mother and a prospective internship at the same time.
“Hillbilly Elegy” is worth seeing for the two lead performances. They’re both very good. It’s just too bad the actresses had to go to all this work for a film that doesn’t know what it wants to say.
It's an elegy, all right. But for what?
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