'Hillbilly Elegy' Reviewed

Plus: Mel Gibson plays Santa in 'Fatman' and a classic Keanu joint is assigned

Elegy for a Hillbilly (limited theatrical; Netflix Nov. 24)

Hillbilly Elegy, the adaptation of J.D. Vance’s memoir of the same name, has two big problems.

The first, and most immediate, problem is that director Ron Howard and casting director Carmen Cuba have simultaneously pulled off a coup: nabbing two of the greatest actresses of our day, Amy Adams and Glenn Close—and, disastrously, placing them opposite two actors who simply can’t hang with them onscreen, Gabriel Basso and Owen Asztalos.

Basso and Asztalos play J.D. Vance as a Yale Law student and a struggling teen, respectively; Adams plays Vance’s mother, Bev, and Close plays Vance’s vicious-yet-loving grandma, Mamaw. Amy Adams is an electrifying performer, able to slide seamlessly into roles as diverse as a Disney princess, a hard-working journalist in love with Superman, and a gal from Boston trying to escape from her dirtbag family. Glenn Close is always magnetic, whether she’s playing a scorned lover/rabbit enthusiast, the head of an intergalactic police force, or the victim of a Boo Box.

They’re both great in this picture. Yes, I know, the most acting is not necessarily the best acting. And I can understand why some would watch the trailer or look at stills and think that Close, in particular, is doing a bit much with the performance. But here’s something I will tell you: Close nails the crusty-old-Appalachian-grandma aesthetic. To an eerie degree. While watching the picture I couldn’t help but think of my own Ohio-born-and-bred grandma; she captures the mannerisms, the movements, the mien. Walking with a hunch and a limp, but quick to tell a ne’er-do-well to “sit and spin,” Close is a vision as this tough old broad.

I have less experience with junkies, but Adams is thoroughly convincing as Vance’s mother, a woman prone to fits of violence, one who feels trapped by her situation (a teenage mother grown old, her hopes dashed and dreams deferred) and with nowhere to turn but the needle. It’s a meaty role and she sinks her teeth into it; Adams delivers a vibrant performance, one that’s alternately heartbreaking and terrifying and just tender enough to keep the whole thing from going off the rails.

In a way it’s not fair to compare Close and Adams—arguably the two women most deserving of an Academy Award who have yet to win one—to Basso and Asztalos. And, honestly, I have no interest in dragging a kid (Asztalos is just 15) or a guy who hasn’t had a credited role in four years for being outshone by two greats. Suffice to say that neither iteration of J.D. Vance displays the emotional depth needed to reckon with the wattage thrown off by the film’s leading women. They’re just blown off the screen.

And maybe it’s not even their fault, really, because Vance, as written for this movie, is kind of a nullity. Other than one very good scene in which the older Vance finds himself confounded by the norms of upper-class society—what type of white wine to drink; which fork to use first—there’s no interiority to the character, no real interest in understanding how this son of the soil escaped the hollers whence he came in order to make it to the cream of the American educational crop. Which brings me to the second real problem with the movie: I don’t have any idea what it’s about.

This isn’t to say it’s a complicated movie. The plot, such as it is, tracks Vance’s efforts to get his mom into rehab following her latest relapse, intercutting the pair’s ramshackle life through the years and Mamaw’s efforts to set him straight. I could tell you what happens in Hillbilly Elegy. But it’s not clear to me at all what it’s about. What the thematic resonance of the picture is supposed to be. What we should take away from it. What it tells us about our time, what it suggests we need to do to better ourselves.

Which is odd, because the book set of a firestorm upon release. Hailed by conservatives as a searing-yet-sympathetic look at the white working class’s life on the margins and despised by progressives for Vance’s insistence that a renewed work ethic, reduced divorce rate, and greater religious attendance could improve people’s lives, it got sucked into the vortex of Trumpism.

There’s a kernel of an idea in the movie, one that briefly emerges when the film crosscuts between Mamaw’s flight to Ohio from Kentucky and Bev’s drug-related distress in the post-industrial town where she’s stuck. A picture that focused more on Bev and Mamaw—women who suffered at the hands of men; women who did everything they could for their kids; women whose strength shaped a boy utterly lacking in male role models—rather than a picture that focuses on the cipher that is J.D. might have offered resonance beyond a sort of stilted misery porn with a happyish ending.

The lack of focus and muddled messaging is why it’s all the more baffling that Netflix’s Hillbilly Elegy has devolved into one of the last cultural flashpoints of the Trump years. Many critics are savaging the picture as the worst form of Oscar bait (it’s certainly Oscar bait, though we’ve seen much worse in recent years) and projecting their frustrations with the source memoir’s attempt to either humanize or shame the white working class onto the film.

The level of vitriol unleashed on Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy would make sense if it were trying to say, well, just about anything. It would at least be understandable. But this picture is far too timid to deserve the lashing it has provoked.

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Review: Fatman (limited theatrical, VOD Nov. 24)

Ironically, the movie about a spoiled child hiring a hitman to take out Santa Claus, as played by Mel Gibson, may have more to tell us about how to live than Hillbilly Elegy. What Hillbilly Elegy feints at—the importance of role models in shaping the lives of young people—Fatman hammers home with gusto.

Santa’s depressed. Chris Cringle (Gibson) and his wife Ruth (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) are on the verge of bankruptcy, you see, and the annual subsidy provided by the federal government to ensure that Christmas spirit continues to generate trillions for the U.S. economy is being cut. Why? Because Santa has so few people to whom he can, in good conscience, deliver presents, and the subsidy is based on the number of gifts he disburses.

The naughty list, it seems, has grown out of control.

And who can blame Papa Noel for being a bit sour on the state of humanity? After all, you’ve got ragamuffins like Billy Wenan (Chance Hurstfield) pretending to be good little boys—taking care of their grandmothers; completing their homework with gusto—all while hiring assassins like Skinny Man (Walton Goggins) to help him intimidate little girls who have the temerity to beat him at the science fair. Little Billy never stood a chance; he seems to be the scion of some mafia family, though it’s never clear what, exactly, their business is.

Similarly, Skinny Man grew up without knowing the pleasures of a proper Christmas. His old man was abusive; as a result, Skinny lashed out. Only once, in all his childhood years, did he get a toy from Santa, and he’s harbored resentment for the jolly old elf ever since. He uses his earnings to buy gifts from Santa’s workshop—which he knows came from Santa’s workshop because they’re stamped with a plaque noting that they are from Santa’s workshop—and has created a veritable museum of childhood memories. To what purpose it is unclear: to torture himself, perhaps, or to try to fill the hole a loveless childhood has left in his soul.

Santa’s plight is a function of his status in society. Despite being omniscient (he knows everything about everyone) and despite being immortal (no wounds seem able to keep him down), his role is largely passive. He’s a judge, not your dad. Whether you get a lump of coal or a brand new PS5 is up to you. And that inability to affect the world, to change it for the better, is clearly getting to him. He turns on the radio and turns it off almost immediately, disgusted by stories of kids dropping rocks off of overpasses.

The only time you see that twinkle in Ol’ Saint Nick’s eyes is when he’s stopping a big rig driver from cheating on his wife in the local watering hole. Deploying his knowledge of all men and their sins, Chris gently reminds the trucker of his family, suggests that the woman behind the bar is known for taking advantage of lonely fellas like himself, and recommends he scrams before he makes a mistake.

Chris wants to be more than a dispenser of goodies. He wants to be a shaper of men.

And look, I might be reading too much into a movie in which Santa Claus becomes a contractor for the U.S. military because his elves can crank out electronic equipment faster than any non-sugar-consuming crew of workers could. Yes, the premise is inherently kind of goofy, even if Gibson, Goggins, and Jean-Baptiste sell the hell out of it. But it’s also elegiac in its own way—and more than a little hopeful about our ability to change the world for the better.

Assigned viewing: Knock Knock (Netflix)

Speaking of movies that want to make you better! I’ve written before about Knock Knock, Eli Roth’s horror film about a devoted husband who gives in to temptation one night and pays a terrible price for doing so. Itis arguably the preeminent example of a genre I like to think of as “Dad Horror”; that is, the sort of movie that’s supposed to scare the living daylights out of any man with a family who has any interest in keeping it safe and intact.

Anyway, I was amused to see this trending on Netflix’s Top 10 chart the other day, if only because it means more people will understand it when I scream “It was free pizza! Free fucking pizza” at them in public. I’m tired of having the cops called on me for that gag. Make sure to watch once the kids are tucked safely in bed! You won’t want them to see the shenanigans Ana de Armas and Lorenza Izzo get into.