ST. LOUIS — Most books make less than stellar movies. Either the words on the page can't be translated in visuals, or the performances are completely out of sync with the tone of the book. Sometimes it just doesn't work.
In Ron Howard's latest feature, Netflix's "Hillbilly Elegy," everything feels overwrought. It all feels forced, the audience being manipulated into liking a central character just because he's not just like his family. In the case of J.D. Vance, who wrote the autobiographical book the film is based on, just isn't worth our hero worship. He's just another Kentucky-bred kid who actually put together a meaningful life, one that his redneck drama-crazed family history would have deemed impossible at birth. But right now, in the current climate we sit in, celebrating J.D. just feels half-baked and again, very forced.
Heck, early on in the film, Vance (played young by Owen Asztalos and as an adult by Gabriel Basso) rescues an injured turtle in the middle of a country road. Right there, the movie is telling us that this is our hero. That's dull if you ask me, recycled from better movies.
But wait, Amy Adams and Glenn Close are in the movie with tons of makeup and wild accents! Great resumes don't always equal great performances. Just ask Leonardo DiCaprio about that time he played J. Edgar Hoover. Adams, drenched in a backwoods drug addiction look that one may see at a Jefferson County Walmart, does her best to cry, scream, and torture herself for an Oscar here, but it doesn't compute. It's like watching a little kid trapped between two much larger kids in a fight: lots of effort and no success. She was a lot better in every other Oscar-nominated role.
Close fares better, because when you see the actual Mamaw that she plays, the conviction is arresting. The actress not only climbs into the character emotionally and physically, but the similarities between her as the real person are uncanny. Hearing Close rave about "Terminator 2: Judgement Day" is easily the film's best moment. If you were hanging onto life by a single thread, and that thread was the seven-time Oscar nominee lip-syncing Arnold Schwarzenegger, you can die happy.
The rest of us will try to figure out how this much talent could get together and make a mediocre film. One could say Howard is a hit or miss these days, but that's been his way for a long time. There are stories and films that he just knocked out of the park, but there are others where it's misguided and misses the mark. You know the film is rough when the crying and angry scenes all come off as phony. Basso was good in "The Big C" on Showtime, but when he tries to work up emotion here, the result seems to be more fit for a television movie of the week.
Oh look, there's Haley Bennett playing a character at a much younger age and older age as well. She's a decent actress, but the flashbacks start to get confusing when she looks the same with young J.D. as she does with older J.D. It's little things like that stack up and start to distract people from a film that already had problems before the performances could even land.
No one is begging for this movie right now. People will think the same way about hillbillies after they watch this movie. It's not an earth-shattering story, and I doubt any awards will come its way. It wasn't for a lack of effort. The one thing this movie has going for it is excess. From the accents to the makeup to the writing, it's 150 mph to the finish line. It's then that you realize there wasn't a point to the whole film. More importantly, that point isn't what movie audiences need right now.
Some books should remain solo. They don't have to be made into movies and gain a life in two different mediums. I am glad Vance got to tell his story. Honestly and truly, good for him. He climbed out of the gutter and made something happen. But that doesn't always make for a good movie.
I am unhappy to report that this is a lukewarm diet Ron Howard cola. I'll watch "Cinderella Man" instead. Talk about an inspiring movie for the times.
"Hillbilly Elegy" most certainly was not.