HILLBILLY ELEGY (2020)

November 23, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “We don’t use that word.” That is law school student JD’s reaction when someone refers to those like his family as hillbillies. He’s understandably defensive, despite his daily navigations between two distinct worlds. Oscar winning director Ron Howard (A BEAUTIFUL MIND, 2001) presents the true story of JD Vance, a young man who earns his way out of his Appalachian background to gain admittance to Yale Law School, only to get dragged back into the life he worked so hard to escape. Vanessa Taylor (Oscar nominated for THE SHAPE OF WATER, 2017) adapted the screenplay from Vance’s own memoir.

The first thing noticed about this film is that it stars Amy Adams (6) and Glenn Close (7), who between them, have 13 Oscar nominations for acting. That’s a pretty distinguished pedigree for a cast. Ms. Adams has been seen recently in the TV mini-series “Sharp Objects” and as Lynn Cheney in Adam McKay’s VICE (2018). Ms. Close was most recently nominated for her performance in THE WIFE (2018). Other notables in the cast include Haley Bennett (excellent in SWALLOW earlier this year), Freida Pinto (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE), and Gabriel Basso (THE KINGS OF SUMMER, 2013).

As the film begins in 1997, we find a young JD (Owen Asztalos) in a tough spot, and we quickly get a feel for the chaos commonplace around his family in Jackson, Kentucky … and also the bond that comes with being a family in the hills. The obligatory family photo ends the segment. We then skip ahead 14 years as the family has 3 houses on the same street in Middletown, after some of them find a way out of Jackson. In this blue collar town hit hard by a financial downturn, they admit to missing only “hope”. The story is told from the perspective of an older JD (Basso), who struggles with the emotional turmoil that his mother Bev (Adams) constantly creates. Remarkably, it’s Mamaw (Close) who provides the strength and stability in the family, and yet, she always seems one small step from exploding at the universe. There is an odd grounded nature and tough-mindedness to Mamaw that Ms. Close radiates on screen. It’s an interesting performance, that some may call over-the-top … a phrase also likely to be used for Ms. Adams as she displays the desperation of an addict, and the broken spirit of one whose shot at life disappeared early on.

For such a stereotypical “simple” family, the complexities of the story and characters are sometimes difficult to appreciate. JD’s sister Lindsay (Bennett) does her best to raise her own family while also managing her mother and grandmother, so that JD can pursue law school. She understands he has possibilities, whereas she has few. And JD’s law school girlfriend Usha (Pinto) truly has no concept of his childhood and family. Class differences are on full display not just with Usha, but also at the dinner where JD (a former Marine) is maneuvering to secure a summer internship that keeps him teetering in the balance of moving forward or falling back.

It’s at this point where JD receives a call from Lindsay informing that mother Bev has overdosed on heroin. It’s yet another example of his own mother inadvertently subverting his efforts to make a new life for himself. Addiction, relapse, financial struggles, family abuse, and untold secrets are the pieces that make up JD’s family pie. When his “old” life collides with his “new” life, will it drag him back down? He periodically faces decisions that are legal and/or morality based, and given his circumstances, it’s never as straightforward as it should be.

Without the power of Glenn Close and Amy Adams, director Howard likely would have had the film slide into the maudlin mode so common with Hallmark or Lifetime Channel movies, and while it’s not the Oscar bait Howard aims for, Netflix has yet another watchable film in their stable. Mr. Howard’s decision to bounce back and forth between 1997 and 2011 does provide the history we need to understand JD’s dilemma, but the see-saw approach is at times distracting. Home movies provided by JD Vance are shown over the closing credits, and it’s here where we realize just how closely Ms. Close physically resembles the real Mamaw. We walk away easily seeing how the circle of this life becomes perpetual, and just how challenging it can be to break free.

Premieres on Netflix November 24, 2020

watch the trailer


HOPE SRINGS (2012)

August 17, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. I often give extra credit to filmmakers for trying something challenging and different, even if the final product might fall a bit short. What I refuse to do is ignore the opposite … a lazy attempt by a filmmaker who thinks they can skate by simply because they picked a interesting topic. Director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) takes the screenplay from Vanessa Taylor and then seems to sit back and bank on the strength of three lead actors to make a statement.

Meryl Streep is the greatest living actress and maybe the greatest of all-time. She can turn any character into a subject of interest and doesn’t disappoint here as Kay, the disenchanted wife of Arnold, played by Tommy Lee Jones (himself an excellent actor). In an effort to save a marriage gone stale after 31 years, she books a week of intensive marriage counseling with Dr. Bernie Feld (Steve Carell). Grumpy Arnold reluctantly agrees to attend despite his belief that all is “fine” with their marriage for the singular reason that it’s lasted 31 years.  Besides that, he has golf to watch on TV … well, “watch” with his eyes closed.

What follows is not the laugh-fest promised by the trailer, but rather a semi-serious look at marriage for the over-60 generation. I say semi-serious because intense and thoughtful topics are raised, but the film continually makes U-Turns at each fork in the road so as to avoid coming up with any real solution or digging deeper into cause/effect. Instead, some prime opportunity is wasted for this to be either a riotous look at marital frustration or an intriguing dive into what makes men and women of this generation unable to communicate.

My contention is that just because this is a movie about marriage for 60-somethings, we shouldn’t give the filmmakers a gold star for effort. The great John Wooden said, “Never mistake effort for results“. There are some humorous moments … some laugh out-loud moments, but not very many. There are some serious topics broached, but only by skimming the surface. Mostly, the scenes are obvious and predictable and Streep and Jones carry the burden of lifting the material.  As a movie lover, I demand more.

 The three leads are excellent. Mr. Carell does a nice job of playing the understated counselor role. He is smart enough to know that this film belongs to Streep and Jones. There is also minor support work from Ben Rappaport, Marin Ireland, Mimi Rogers and Elisabeth Shue. All of these characters seem tossed in for variety only. None really drive the story. though it seems either one more or one less scene with with Shue in the bar would have made sense. The first 20 minutes of the film has three songs that just overpower the scenes.  I guess this is to ensure that every viewer recognizes the mood of the characters.  It’s as if the director recognized the material was lightweight.

I have labeled this genre Gray Cinema, and have previously stated that I expect we are on the front end of this trend as baby boomers demand more movies about themselves. The trend is commendable, but again I say, we should demand more and better.  Showing up is half the battle … now let’s see the other half.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy watching the great Meryl Streep brilliantly craft another of her cinematic characters

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you find the raising of issues to be a starting point, not a finish line for a story

watch the trailer: