Review by Sean Boelman
Some movies are obviously made to cash in on the sentimentality of their story and star power of their cast and crew, and Ron Howard’s newest film Hillbilly Elegy is a perfect example of that. Well-meaning but needlessly melodramatic and plainly-shot, those hoping for an empathetic biopic like he made in the ‘90s and early 2000s will be sorely disappointed.
The film follows a Yale law student who, returning to his hometown to deal with some family troubles, must confront his childhood and how the American Dream may or may not allow him to carve his own path. Even though there are undoubtedly people who will connect with the story, its obvious eagerness to please and inspire results in it losing any sense of emotional authenticity.
One of the biggest issues with the film is that it can’t seem to figure out what it wants to be about. As an exploration of the American Dream, the film is extremely skewed and surprisingly mean-spirited, focusing on the factors that tried to hold the protagonist back rather than how he overcame them. Because of this, the film leaves viewers with a bit of a bitter taste.
The other half of the film focuses on addiction, but more often than not, this comes across as pity-mongering. A few legitimately touching moments show the potential that the film has, but Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay frequently sticks to the familiar (and safe) beats. When it tries to address the more difficult mental health aspect of the story, it largely falls short.
Additionally, the narrative is poorly-constructed. The flashbacks are where a significant majority of the conflict and substance is found. Those portions of the film which feature the protagonist as an adult serve as little more than a framing device. A subplot about his embarrassment of his family affecting his relationship with his girlfriend is unnecessary and underdeveloped.
Howard’s directing style is just as safe and straightforward as the script. Everything about this film is on the heavy-handed side. The cinematography is way too saturated, which is particularly problematic in scenes with a darker tone, as they reduce the emotional impact that the film could have had. The score by David Fleming and Hans Zimmer is also overbearing.
Glenn Close’s performance is the main highlight of this film, but even she struggles to boost her part that offers some of the worst dialogue in the entire script. At this point, Amy Adams is simply trying too hard, giving a turn that lacks the nuance and subtlety to resonate. Others, like Haley Bennett and Freida Pinto, are disappointingly underused.
Hillbilly Elegy feels like a film that was made with a specific audience in mind, yet in setting its sights so precisely, it loses track of what made the story worth telling in the first place. It’s not incompetent, but it still feels like a tremendous misfire.
Hillbilly Elegy streams on Netflix beginning November 24.