Friday, November 13, 2020

New Ron Howard-directed film 'Hillbilly Elegy', based on controversial J.D. Vance memoir, mostly panned by critics

Glenn Close and Amy Adams in Hillbilly Elegy
Most critics are panning the film version of J.D. Vance's controversial memoir Hillbilly Elegy, which debuts on Netflix and in theaters Nov. 24. The film, about Vance's childhood in an Appalachian migrant family in Ohio and his bootstrapping rise to success, boasts formidable star power, with Ron Howard directing and Amy Adams and Glenn Close starring as a feuding mother and daughter. But that wasn't enough to carry the film, many critics said.

The film would be "almost laughably bad—if it weren't so melodramatic," Michael O'Sullivan of The Washington Post writes. "From one side of its mouth, the film tries to suggests that the values J.D. was imbued with — perseverance, self-sufficiency — fueled his success. (The author is now a venture capitalist.) And yet those same values don’t seem to have saved many in his family — or, frankly, the larger Rust Belt community. From the other side of its mouth, the film hints that J.D. is who he is because he’s something of an anomaly: a chubby, ambitious, fact-spewing nerd who’d rather watch a news show on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal than sit through a cable broadcast of Terminator 2: Judgment Day with his grandmother for the umpteenth time."

Alissa Wilkinson of Vox is less charitable, calling it "possibly the worst movie I've seen in years." The memoir was widely criticized for seemingly dismissing the role of sociocultural ills in personal success, writes Wilkinson, who says she comes from a similar background, but she writes that "whatever your opinion of the book, the movie is a different animal, and a startlingly terrible one." In the book, Vance's background makes him intriguing to others, but in the movie it's played for embarrassment; that rings false, Wilkinson writes: "It is distractingly Hollywoodified, a rich person’s idea of what it is like to be a poor person, a tone-deaf attempt to assuage a very particular kind of liberal guilt by reifying the very thing that caused the guilt in the first place. And, perhaps worst of all, it’s a very dull movie."

G. Allen Johnson of The San Francisco Chronicle praises Adams' and Close's performances, and gives it a somewhat kinder review: "A strength is that focusing on the past defuses the inevitable burden of representing the complex politics of Trump country. A weakness is that it is about as relevant to the current moviegoer as Fried Green Tomatoes or Steel Magnolias. The movie feels defanged, a film that won’t quite go there."

The film is "exactly the kind of milquetoast and capital-'E' Empathetic movie you would expect a bunch of Hollywood liberals to make from Vance’s memoir," David Ehrlich writes for IndieWire. But it's not true to the book, he writes. Vance's memoir "read like a tortured account of survivor’s guilt from someone desperate to justify his success and make peace his their one-way transition from yokel to yuppy," Ehrlich writes. It became a political football, but the film is "anodyne and somehow apolitical" and seems like "it's trying to sand the edges off this story and do Vance the favor of making him seem like a good example."

Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times calls the film a "wobbly sociological treatise by way of a tough, harrowing personal story" and writes that the film has been "denuded of any meaningful politics to speak of" despite Vance’s "harsher assessments" of the people he grew up around. Director Ron Howard, who as a boy played Opie in The Andy Griffith Show, is "a political liberal but an aesthetic conservative" who "has never been one to rock the boat or advance a provocative point of view," Chang notes. "Which is not to say there are no real-world ideas or insights to be gleaned here, only that they’re mostly glancing, incidental ones."

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