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Monday November 28th

Oscars Spotlight Column: 'Hillbilly Elegy' is bait, and the Oscars fell for it

Glenn Close, left, and Amy Adams in Netflix's "Hillbilly Elegy." Photo courtesy of Lacey Terrell/Netflix/TNS
Buy Photos Glenn Close, left, and Amy Adams in Netflix's "Hillbilly Elegy." Photo courtesy of Lacey Terrell/Netflix/TNS

On the surface, “Hillbilly Elegy” seems to be everything you would want in an awards candidate. 

The story is largely set in the American Midwest, where the contrast between natural beauty and the adverse effects of the country’s shifting economic and social landscapes is most apparent. 

The screenplay was adapted from a memoir of the same name, which was on The New York Times Best Sellers list for over a year. It tells a prototypically American story of a boy growing up in southern Ohio, and how the values of his rural family clash with the social problems they face in an urban setting. 

The cast is headlined by two names the Academy is sure to recognize, Amy Adams and Glenn Close. The director is an even more familiar name — two-time Oscar winner Ron Howard. 

What could possibly go wrong? 

A lot, actually.

Right from the beginning, issues with the movie’s directing are made painfully clear to the viewer. The alarming amount of camera cuts in the opening few minutes, which serve no purpose whatsoever, is enough to have viewers' heads spinning.

The jarring visuals are paired with a spell of aggravatingly cliched opening narration delivered by the film’s protagonist, J.D. Vance (Gabriel Basso). 

After the opening flashback — another cliche, by the way — to a visit to his family home in J.D.’s adolescence, “Elegy” leaps ahead in time to the present, where we find our protagonist studying at Yale University. There’s no explanation of how he got there, and a decent attempt to provide one won’t be made until the end of the film.

J.D. sees his efforts to get an internship at a law firm interrupted by a call from his sister, Lindsay (Haley Bennett), revealing to him that his mother, Beverly (Amy Adams), is in the hospital after overdosing on heroin. J.D. returns home to Middletown, Ohio, to tend to his mother, who's belligerent after refusing to enter a rehab facility. 

Almost all of the acting performances in the movie are standard, at best, with a majority of the characters delivering emotional lines in a manner that seems just slightly off-kilter. 

Yet, it’s a bit difficult to blame them when they are constrained by an uninspiring screenplay. When the characters aren't rattling off aphorisms or seemingly superficial turns of phrase to give the impression of the Midwest, the screenplay only allows for a lifeless rendition of what could have been a gripping story.

The words being spoken don't seem like they are coming from the characters themselves, but instead from a team of writers hoping to score an awards nomination — which they got, by the way, in the form of a Razzie nod for Worst Screenplay.  

It is also frustrating to have all but one of the film’s major emotional moments take place in the past. It almost seems like the scenes in the present are providing context for the events of the past, which leave me with doubts as to which of the two are supposed to be more important.

Even Close and Adams, who perform decently in the movie, are seemingly stuck in place. While both are convincing, with Close doing particularly well as “Mamaw” Vance, neither could break free to deliver a truly special performance. In fact, I’m a bit surprised Close was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. 

The production design is also mediocre, but the hair and makeup team behind “Elegy” ought to be recognized. An impressive commitment to tiny details helps magnify the performances of the actors modeling their handiwork. If anyone helps make this movie more convincing, it's them, and their awards nod is absolutely merited. 

The film's themes of family struggle and the urban-rural disconnect are barely communicated by its cast. But the movie may also inadvertently perpetuate some of the stereotypes about America’s poor communities that it sought to dispel. 

The amount of untapped potential here is, truly, frustrating. 

It isn't terrible, but it may be the worst film up for an Academy Award this year, bar Disney’s live-action “Mulan” remake. (I know. I can’t believe it got a nod either.) Fortunately for all of us, there were plenty of others to watch. (5.5/10)


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