In Which We Take Belated Pot Shots at “Hillbilly Elegy”

I had already contemplated doing a thing on Hillbilly Elegy but dismissed the notion, but now that Glenn Close has been nominated for an Oscar, I thought I’d go ahead and weigh in, as I’m in the majority who feel that that turn, and the whole movie, more fittingly deserve Razzies. The material is personal to me, in the same way My Big Fat Greek Wedding might be personal to a Greek (and really, this movie ought to be taken about as seriously). My own life’s journey is not unlike that of J.D. Vance. It’s an American story that’s rarely told and almost never told right. And this botched exercise will do nothing to alter that state of affairs.

The film was astutely released on Netflix just in time for Thanksgiving and it set all of Twitter a-titter for a couple of days. It is a movie that seemed like it might have been right for the moment, and was marketed as such, but possesses so many levels of wrongness they can scarcely be counted. The marketing, the buzz, seemed to communicate that this movie, like the book it was based on, would represent some sort of answer to the mystery, so puzzling to so many liberals, of the inexplicable existence of the Trump voter. Leaving aside, for the moment, the thoroughly debunked myth that the MAGA crowd is homogenous, which they are not, at least in terms of economic status, which is such a large piece of this. But liberals will persist in scratching their heads about why the poor and near-poor continue to support this historically awful man. Numerous books became bestsellers purporting to offer insight. I read a couple and found them pretty clueless. But, anyway, that’s what this film looked like it what was meant to be, especially in the wake of the 2020 Presidential election.

But, of course, it is not that, and doesn’t even really purport to be that. Neither are the book or the movie really what their own title proclaims them to be. It is a memoir about one person’s very particular experience. Vance’s mother’s family was from Kentucky; He grew up in industrial Ohio. It’s not a commonly known fact but in the postwar period poor Southern whites made the same journey north as many poor Southern blacks, looking for opportunity. My Tennessee family moved to New England. If you watch Judas and the Black Messiah, you will see many of these people represented at a white power meeting in Chicago. Haskell Wexler’s genius 1968 movie Zero Cool also chronicles this demographic. Martin Luther King was to include these poor Appalachians in his Poor People’s Campaign, but assassination killed that promising moment of interracial class solidarity. Instead Richard Nixon, George Wallace, and several subsequent generations of opportunistic politicians from both parties drove a wedge between poor whites and poor blacks. As I say, Hillbilly Elegy is not about explaining the Trump phenomenon, but surely race is a much more relevant lens than class for doing so.

But Vance’s thesis has to do with class. He’d have had a much better book if he merely drew a portrait of his life experiences without imposing a socio-political thesis upon it, but that’s what he does. Even so, it’s a muddled one. Basically, it’s that the poor whites of Appalachia are lazy, violent, addicted, criminal, dishonest, but loyal (to their own), patriotic (selectively, I can’t help noting), and hurting, for want of opportunity. He’s a Republican, so he would prefer that the opportunity come in the form of jobs and he disapproves of welfare, though I can’t help smugly noting that his own upward mobility occurred from serving in the military and going to school on the G.I. Bill, which, unless you’re in serious denial about what to call it, is a government program. He later attained a law degree from Yale, putting him at some distance from his origins. He is now in the unique position of being able to simultaneously scorn the culture he came from and also the kind of government that might step in to help them. Vance, as much as the people he writes about, thus does speak to the success of Trump and his philosophy, which is basically “I got mine. Now you go ahead and get yours if you can — and don’t bother me none.” Yet, the path the GOP is offering to people at the bottom, the vaunted “jobs” they crow constantly about, invariably amounts to low-paying non-union, dead-end work with no insurance and no benefits, and no conceivable upward mobility, which is the ostensible point of their philosophy. At this stage it’s not even “Lift yourself up by your own bootstraps.” It’s “Sorry! No bootstraps!”

The actual STORY of Vance’s life is beyond mundane. I doubt strongly there is an interesting movie in it. The actual plot thread is: a kid of modest means is raised by his single, drug addict mother and his primitive, narrow grandparents, and despite the odds, grows up to attend the nation’s most prestigious law school. Sure, you could make a movie about it, but it would be the TELLING and not the events, that could make a success of it. So what we are left with is the novelty of the setting and the characters. Those are the attraction. Believe it or not, there is one way in which Ron Howard might have been the right person for this material. His grandfather was an Oklahoma farmer. So his dad, actor Rance Howard, had actually made this same journey of upward mobility. But the journey was Rance’s, not Ron’s. Ron Howard grew up in comfort in Hollywood, and had been in show business since young childhood and is now a member of the Hollywood elite the characters in Hillbilly Elite despise.

Worse, Howard’s is a mediocre, pedestrian intellect of the worst order. I dislike nearly every one of his pandering, facile, unimaginative movies. It took me about four tries to see Hillbilly Elegy all of the way through. I knew how his take on the material would be wrong before I watched it, and then when I watched it, it turned out to be wrong in just that way: simultaneously patronizing and tawdry. I can think of three ways you could make a proper movie out of Vance’s material: 1) You could honor Vance’s voice, and make a movie with a conservative thesis. There are few in the movie industry who could or would do this, and I’m not saying I would like it, but at least it would have its own kind of integrity. 2) You could DECONSTRUCT Vance’s memoir, and make a class-conscious, socialist statement, or 3) You could throw out any thesis and just make a beautiful (or ugly) portrait of some people, which I think would be best of all. Naturally, Howard’s approach was a chopped salad of all three, to headache inducing effect. As best as he can, he tries to honor Vance’s perspective. But his Hollywood liberal instincts won’t allow him to really do that, so he hedges and subverts it all over the place. And because he’s a rich guy with a connection to this material but from a distance, his idea of a portrait is a kind of cartoonish freak-show.

Be honest: the whole lure of this movie at all was seeing pictures of Glenn Close in that preposterous get-up as Vance’s grandmother. Now, who doesn’t love Glenn Close? She’s Charity Barnum and Sunny Von Bulow and Norma Desmond and Cruella de Ville! The Big Chill! Fatal Attraction! But she’s also a privileged lady from Greenwich Connecticut, the daughter of a famous doctor and a socialite. Of course, a good actor can play anything, no matter the cultural gulf. But for whatever reason, she and Howard decided to put her character in elaborate White Trash Drag, so that she looks like a cross between Tootsie and the woman in Throw Momma From the Train. I’d like to point out that she could have played the part without the cartoonish wig, glasses and fat suit, which might be called “Taking the Lon Chaney approach”, the Quasimodification of this dude’s grandmother. By contrast, I was delighted to see Bo Hopkins play the grandfather. He’s much closer to his part, and plays him naturalistically, though he scarcely has any lines. (I love this underrated actor. He normally plays cracker parts, though one of of my favorite performances of his was as a marine biologist in Tentacles, which showed that he had range. Howard had worked with him as long ago as a 1967 episode of The Andy Griffith Show as well as the movie American Graffiti). Anyway, Hopkins’ presence points up the obvious fact that naturalism is the only way to tell this real, true story. For this reason, Amy Adams, another actress I feel can do no wrong, is also very effective in her role in the film as Vance’s loose-cannon mother, though the script and the direction don’t permit her to build the pieces of her performance into anything transcendent,

I’ve always thought of Howard as the foremost Spielberg copyist, and he suffers from Speilberg’s flaws, without having any major strengths as a director beyond simple competence, And Hillbilly Elegy is the kind of movie where such flaws are most keenly felt. Howard’s entire modus operandi is to shape artificial entertainments. Why the hell doesn’t he do a musical? He’d probably be better at that than nearly anyone! He was even in The Music Man! Instead his usual jam is to try to tell “meaningful” stories in superficial, ineffective ways. There is all kinds of gloss and glitter and phony baloney in his storytelling. In his hands, a gritty story about hillbillies and pills and domestic violence looks like it was filmed by Walt Disney. Look at the poster above. Just what the world needs: a movie about social problems and life at the bottom by “The director of Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind“! If Howard had actually HAD some of these experiences, or was the type of artist to open his brain and get close to them, there might be some nonjudgmental truth in some of the moments. Instead, he is just a tourist here, and an unenthusiastic one. He directs this movie like he was passing through a Safari Park with the windows closed. And yet he also appears afraid of hurting the feelings of audiences who might relate to the events of the movie. And so it’s all at arms length. Nobody’s hands get too dirty. His, Vance’s and the characters’ points of view are all at odds and he never chooses any of them. One of the film’s most harrowing, troubling and confounding moments occurs when young Vance flees his mother who has just savagely beaten the hell out of him. Cops are called. And we have this weird scene where the boy, out of some sort of primal loyalty, doesn’t rat her out and we don’t know how to feel about it. But oughtn’t we? Shouldn’t a social worker or SOMEBODY step in? Howard was probably torn between feeling that way and the need to perpetuate the usual Hollywood “family is important” bullshit, which seems a wholesome message…except, um, in cases like violence against children. Vance would probably counter that, hey, he turned out okay — his grandmother and not the state stepped in, I could counter that counter with the fact that his grandmother seemed pretty heinous, at least as presented here, and the jury is out as to whether he did turn out okay from what I’ve seen.

And good lord! Look at the poster again! In what way is this story “inspiring”?! To do what? To be what? How? Hell, man, hand me some of them drugs!