In the opening 15 minutes of Ron Howard's 'Hillbilly Elegy', the lead protagonist JD Vance scolds a group of lawyers for a faux-pas about his mother, arguing that she's the smartest person he knows and that the use of the term 'redneck' is borderline offensive.
The story of 'Hillbilly Elegy' centres around a young student in Yale Law School, working three jobs to make the tuition payments, and finds himself forced to return home when his mother - played by Amy Adams - has fallen ill from a heroin overdose. The movie flits back and forth in time, interlocking Vance's struggles to make his way through the high-flying world of Ivy League colleges and his modest upbringing in Kentucky and Ohio, where his family is splintered by both their personal problems and wider economic and social issues.
While that might seem like it's ripe for drama, the truth is that Ron Howard's direction, Amy Adams and Glenn Close's performance, and the wider issues with the story and Vance's telling of it all, just serves to make it leaden and overcooked. There are these moments when the drama is ratcheted up and the performances feel so heightened that it comes across as false and insincere when it doesn't need to be.
The movie tries so hard, so desperately hard, to make it clear that Vance is this bootstrapping go-getter who's gone beyond his impoverished upbringing, but does it in such a heavy-handed way that it's liable to induce a hernia with the effort that goes into it. It shouldn't come as a surprise that Vance is himself a Republican, or that the memoir upon which the movie is based has been touted by social conservatives closer to home, like Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and current Minister of Finance Pascal Donohoe.
It's clear that Ron Howard is trying to induce a certain amount of earnestness into the proceedings, and views the smalltown integrity and decency as something to be admired, like in movies like 'Gung Ho', 'Cocoon', and of course, his role in 'Happy Days'. What's galling is that the movie so blithely ignores the larger causes of their woes - namely, capitalism, political indifference, and globalisation - and instead zeroes in on the fact that it's these people's own bad choices that have caused their own problems - typified by Vance's mother, played by Amy Adams.
Once upon a time, misery porn was an honest-to-goodness strategy for getting a movie into the Oscars race, particularly in the '90s. More recent efforts, such as 'The Fault In Our Stars' and '13 Reasons Why' have pulled the focus back from wider settings and aimed it at teenage suicide and cancers. What 'Hillbilly Elegy' does is no different from any of these. It flattens out the curves and sharp edges of the story, makes it into a more simplistic telling, gives us a hero and a villain, makes us feel sorry for everyone involved, and then lets everyone off the hook by the end.
Adams and Close are both far, far better than this. Indeed, Adams is doing that tried-and-tested 'dirtying up' for the role, as is Close, but the fact is that their performances never go beyond caricature. Glenn Close's monologue about "good Terminators and bad Terminators" is so cloying that you'd long for a sharp blow to head from the T-1000 by the end of it.
When people say that they "don't make them like this anymore", it's normally reserved for bolder, experimental efforts or movies done with a kind of nuance and examination that's left out of the wider landscape. They don't make movies like 'Hillbilly Elegy' any more, not because people don't care about stories like this or ones that feature working-class people or areas ignored by social mobility, but because treating these people and places like a safari tour just doesn't wash.