By John H. Foote
(**) Netflix / In Theatres
Based on the timely, inflammatory memoir by J.D. Vance, this new film from Ron Howard has some tremendously fine moments, even some truly great acting, but Howard is the film’s great liability.
Best known for his mainstream, slick and shiny Hollywood hits, Howard is quite often a money machine, his films drawing audiences and hundreds of millions of dollars. Three of his films are genuine masterpieces, films for the ages – Apollo 13 (1995), Cinderella Man (2005) and Frost/ Nixon (2008) each superbly acted and directed, all three based on real life events each with strong, great actors. His directing career began with the B movie Eat My Dust (1977) while his TV show Happy Days was in its heyday. The huge success of Night Shift (1982) is what gave Howard his directing career, not to mention launched the film career of Michael Keaton. Splash (1984), Cocoon (1985), Gung Ho (1986) and Willow (1987) were all box office hits and did reasonably well with the critics, though complaints had started about the mint shininess of Howard’s films, they looked like new toys. The characters lived in a Hollywood universe that did not really exist, there was no realism, and a grand lack of truth. Parenthood (1989) began changing that, a solid film about family and dysfunction that struck a chord with audiences and was a huge hit. This time critics responded too, enjoying the film and the performances. Backdraft (1991) was an excellent entertainment about firefighters, a superb action film with strong performances. Far and Away (1992) was a Tom Cruise adventure love story and The Paper (1994) was a decent enough film about the job of running a big city newspaper.
Then came his first absolute masterpiece Apollo 13 (1995). His compelling film about the disaster in space aboard the Apollo 13 spacecraft on its way to a moon landing was masterful in every way, managing to draw suspense from a story the audience knew ended happily. He won the Directors Guild of America Award (DGA) as Best Director, but despite the film being nominated for nine Academy Awards, Howard was snubbed. It would be six years before the Academy made it up to Howard, awarding him Best Director and Best Film for the undeserving A Beautiful Mind (2001). In between he made one of the worst films of his career: How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000), a feature length live action adaptation of the Dr. Seuss storybook. An out of control Jim Carrey, his mugging ruining the film, enjoyed the making the film, perhaps because he had full run of the set. He followed his Oscar win with a brilliant western The Missing (2003) that made neither an impression with some critics (I loved it) or audiences. Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones delivered Oscar caliber performances but the entire film was snubbed. The same happened with Cinderella Man (2005) a brilliant biography of Depression hero boxer James Braddock, who gave hope to those starving. How was this not an Oscar nominee? Howard took on The Da Vinci Code (2006) franchise next, directing three films for the series, this first the best, which was not saying much. He followed it with Angels and Demons (2009), a weak entry, and finally Inferno (2016) the least of the trio. His 2008 film Frost/ Nixon (2008), based on the play, was superb, dealing with the Nixon-David Frost interviews that aired in the seventies. Nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director, it remains one of his best features. The most under appreciated film of Howard’s is perhaps In the Heart of the Sea (2015), an adventure on the high seas as sailors chase the whale that would inspire Melville’s “Moby Dick”. Magnificent, but again nobody saw the film. His Star Wars entry, Solo (2018), was a mess, bringing us to his new film, Hillbilly Elegy.
Howard lacks the grit, the edge in his work to make this film and make it believable. Scorsese, the Coens or even Tarantino could have made this film one of the year’s best, but not Howard. He strips away all the politics from the book, taking away the fact the underclass in the American South helped to make Trump the President in 2016. Howard did not grow up in poverty, was never hungry, nor into drugs, he never had to claw his way into a career, so what could he possibly know about this group of people from East Kentucky?
Clint Eastwood once said that half his job as a director is done with the casting and Howard cast wisely, with Amy Adams as the troubled drug addict and the great Glenn Close as the matriarch of the clan. Both are under heavy make up to alter their appearances, both wear baggy clothes, and each does everything in their power to look different. About 20 minutes into the film it becomes crystal clear this film is as much about winning awards as it is in telling a story. Neither Adams or Close have won their Oscar despite several nominations each. Both women are considered to be among the finest actresses of their generations, yet neither has won an Academy Award. It seemed to be Close’s year just two years ago but she famously lost for her sterling performance in the subtle The Wife (2018) to Olivia Colman in The Favourite (2018). Many, myself included, believe Close should have won for one of her performances in the eighties, but it did not come to pass. The Academy would love her to win, and this might be it.
Adams has been a frequent nominee and she too has deserved to win at least once and nominated for even more. How was she NOT nominated for her delightful work in Enchanted (2007) or her brilliant linguistics scientist in Arrival (2016), both superb performances among the finest five of each of those years. While her chances are less than her co-star, she might, you just never know.
I studied to be an actor and became a director using the Method Acting system in my stage work. The cardinal rule for any actor in a play of mine was “Never act! Strive only to become.” Great acting is never to be seen acting, never to give the audience a glimpse behind the person playing the part, let the audience see only the character. It makes me crazy when the Academy honours a performance in which you see the actor “acting” all over the place, it sickens me.
Roberto Begnini in Life is Beautiful (1998) springs to mind, Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman (1992), Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets (1997), and Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line (2005). Gary Oldman is among the finest actors on the planet, but his Oscar win for his performance as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour (2017) was utterly ridiculous. Buried under layers of latex and a fat suit, who gave the performance in the film, Oldman or the make up? He acted up a storm, but not once did I ever believe I was watching Churchill. And yet they gave him an Oscar! Foolishness, these awards for career achievement or make up awards for losing in previous years.
Both Adams and Close act up a storm and give brash over the top performances that might get them nominated, hell, Close could win, but I hope neither wins because they simply do not deserve it. If Close wins it will be because she has not ever won before, a shameful reason which must be felt by the actor. I imagine both actresses watched the film with more than a bit of shame, realizing they went wildly over the top in search of an Oscar.
When J.D., a grown man, Ivy League graduate, and lawyer is called home because his mother has overdosed again, he returns to his roots, the roots he worked so hard to escape. Just a cut above what people refer to as “trailer trash”, J.D. committed himself to getting out, and despite the massive obstacles against him, he did just that. Once this decent young man returns home he is plunged into the hell that was his childhood, a world of door slamming, noisy shouting arguments, and abuse, all of which he escaped. Addiction runs rampant in the town, something his mother fell into.
Once the brightest light in the town with a real chance of getting out, Bev (Adams) was class valedictorian, headed for college and an evolving life far from Kentucky. But Bev was pregnant at a young age, just as her mother was, and fell into the cycle of repetition that has haunted her family for years. With two kids, no father in sight for either, and a revolving door of men who are there for her, never the kids, she falls into heroin as a means of escape, failing her children, but more failing herself in every possible way. Bev is hot tempered, brash, and very loud, not just when she argues but all the time as though she were trying to get all the attention, which she usually manages to do. Her kid J.D. ended up with her mother, MaMaw (Close), a hard drinking, chai smoking, tough as nails lady who is the matriarch of the family that she knows is filled with dysfunction. Obsessed with the movie Terminator 2 – Judgement Day (1991), she professes to having watched the film more than 100d times, can recite the dialogue, and if she finds it on TV while surfing channels, cannot change it. It is if she sees herself as the terminator, able to adapt, able to survive all that life throws at her, and always rising to live another day. She is by now used to her daughter Bev, used to everything that she is.
And Bev is a piece of work.
A fury of aggressive hurricane like emotions she spends most of her time in rages that explode out of nowhere or when she feels slighted in some manner, or worst of all when she is craving heroin. She shouts a lot, Adams having attended (apparently) the Al Pacino school of acting (loud is more), which is just so beneath her. Amy Adams’ great strength as an actress has always been her innate ability to slip into character without a lot of effort, though I am positive she works very hard. She brings a grounded realism to every role she has portrayed, and there are moments of greatness here as Bev, but not anywhere enough for this to be considered a great performance. In many ways the film reminded me of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) when two great actresses went wildly over the top to create a grand horror show, the difference being their going over the top worked for the film, it was entirely necessary. Here I question why louder is more? Why is louder better? Granted, we all know families where shouting and loud voices are part of everyday life, which perhaps Howard was going for. For me it became all a little much, all a tad false. No, that is not true, a tad false does not cover it, it feels hugely wrong, as though Howard missed the point of the book completely.
Both actresses play down their beauty with make up designed to make them ugly, unattractive, and wear bulky second hand clothing to hide their shapes. Adams’ skin looks ruddy, unhealthy while Close looks nothing like she usually does, a frizzy fright wig perhaps in storage all these years from Fatal Attraction (1987) dragged out and plunked on her head. Both performances scream ACADEMY AWARD ME … PLEASE!
Ron Howard is a decent man who has become a very good, however inconsistent, filmmaker. When he has risked he has both succeeded and failed, but at least he tried! What he has not done is found his niche, found where he fits best. He absolutely deserved the Academy Award for Best Director for Apollo 13, a masterpiece in every way, and nominations should have come for The Missing (2003) and Cinderella Man (2005). He is a very good director, no argument, but I am curious why he took the guts out of the book for this film? We could have gained insight into the very people Trump appealed too, and we learn nothing about their political leanings, nothing about what pushed them to that monster, other than the obvious, he spoke to them.
With a chance to make a masterpiece about the forgotten under class, he spooked and went in the other direction. Kind of a shame when he had all the tools and actors to make this work.
This might be the single most disappointing film of the year.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.