Review: 'Hillbilly Elegy' Does Not Have Much To Say : Pop Culture Happy Hour The book Hillbilly Elegy was a phenomenon in 2016. Writer J.D. Vance wrote about growing up in Ohio and Kentucky, and about his family's struggles with addiction, abuse and poverty. He tried to both explain and critique the white Appalachian experience, to profoundly mixed reviews. Now, a film adaptation on Netflix sticks mostly to the dramatic elements of Vance's story, from his mother's battles with addiction to his path to law school. It's directed by Ron Howard and stars Glenn Close and Amy Adams.
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Does 'Hillbilly Elegy' Really Have Something To Say?

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Does 'Hillbilly Elegy' Really Have Something To Say?

Does 'Hillbilly Elegy' Really Have Something To Say?

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LINDA HOLMES, HOST:

The book "Hillbilly Elegy" was a phenomenon in 2016. The writer, J.D. Vance, wrote about growing up in Ohio and Kentucky and about his family's struggles with addiction, abuse and poverty. He tried to both explain and critique the white Appalachian experience to profoundly mixed reviews. Now a film adaptation on Netflix sticks mostly to the dramatic elements of Vance's story, from his mother's battles with addiction to his path to law school. We're talking about "Hillbilly Elegy" on today's episode of POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR, so don't go away.

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HOLMES: Welcome back. Joining us from his home in Brooklyn is Jeffrey Masters. Jeffrey is the host of the podcast "LGBTQ&A." That's Q&A with an ampersand. Welcome, Jeffrey.

JEFFREY MASTERS: Hey, thanks for having me.

HOLMES: So I suspect a lot of people are familiar with "Hillbilly Elegy" the book, at least in the sense that it made a lot of news during and after the 2016 election as far as whether it did or it didn't have something interesting or insightful to say about white rural communities and about the opioid crisis. To some people, Vance brought a really interesting perspective to something that's not talked about that much. To other people, he was mostly making a lot of broad judgments about poor people and people struggling with addiction without looking to anything except his own sort of anecdotal tales. The film has already received some pretty brutal reviews. That's in spite of a cast that has some heavy hitters in it, including Amy Adams as Vance's mother, Glenn Close as his grandmother - Glenn Close in a lot of makeup. It's directed by Ron Howard, who won a couple of Oscars for "A Beautiful Mind." The screenplay is from Vanessa Taylor, who, among other things, wrote the best picture winner "The Shape of Water." It has a lot of credentials going for it, but it seems to have come up short with a lot of the critics who watched it first. But I want to ask you, Jeffrey, what sort of made you interested in checking out this movie in the first place?

MASTERS: Yeah, so I'm from the South and I spent a lot of time in the Appalachian region where this movie takes place. And that is something we haven't seen a lot of on screen. And similarly, you mentioned the opioid crisis. I've been waiting to see more of that explored on screen because that issue's only been accelerating. And, you know, the movie tried to tell so many different stories, and I found it really hard to digest any single one in any meaningful way.

HOLMES: Yeah. My issue with it - so in the film, you're sort of following him. I mean, believe it or not, the kind of overarching structure of the movie is him trying to make it to a law firm interview, which I'm not sure is a great hero's journey for a movie. But, you know, so he keeps flashing back. It's essentially got two periods of time that they're covering - a period when he was younger, when he was kind of a young teenager, a young adolescent, when his mom was kind of first having her worst problems and he was moving in with his grandmother and things like that, and then this period when he's older and he's, you know, gone to law school and is kind of on the cusp of this success with this law firm.

But there are a lot of other things that I think they're, as you say, kind of trying to do at the same time. There's the Amy Adams story in which she has kind of a series of really unsuccessful relationships. She has significant issues with addiction. There are indications that there was abuse in her family going back to the Glenn Close character and her husband.

But I think you're right that there's a lot of sort of milling around these stories in the movie. I think it has trouble focusing, partly because out of all these people, including, by the way, his sister, who is the person who kind of rather than going to law school and all that stuff stays home with the family - in addition to her, you've got all these other people, but yet the focus is on him. And I'm not sure why the focus would be on him except that he's the one who wrote the book. Do you know what I mean? Does he have the most compelling story?

MASTERS: No. We also never found out, like, why he became successful, right?

HOLMES: Right.

MASTERS: He joined the Marines. He went to Yale Law School compared to the sister character who stayed in the hometown. And we never have any reason for why he was successful and she wasn't.

HOLMES: Yeah.

MASTERS: Also, like, making him the focal point kind of says that in order to live a happy life, you need to get out of these small towns. And I really don't like the message that that sends, too. You know, you can live in the Appalachian region of a country and still be happy. Many people do it.

HOLMES: Absolutely. And I think also - I have not read the entire book, but I've read parts of the book. And I think one of the things that you see is that they have really removed a lot of the kind of politics and almost what he thinks of as the moral of the story - they've kind of removed because it is controversial because for him - and he lays this out right in the introduction, a lot of the kind of moral of his story is people need to not feel sorry for themselves and take responsibility for their own actions and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. And I think because that was a controversial framing for this story, they just kind of removed it. So they tell you the story and then you think, well, why am I here?

MASTERS: Well, they tell you the story and then they show you the story, right?

HOLMES: Right.

MASTERS: So I hate when movies make me feel like I'm dumb. So, like, the narrator says, oh, if you can't win a fight, your family will win it for you. And then we see a scene where he can't win a fight and the family will win it for them.

HOLMES: Right, right.

MASTERS: And I was like, oh, my God. Like, we get it. I don't need both - all of these.

HOLMES: Yeah. It definitely has a very bad case of tell and show (laughter).

MASTERS: Yeah. I mean, it just felt - the whole thing felt outdated to me. And I couldn't help but wonder what somebody like a Barry Jenkins could have done with this - just more grounded and - I don't want to say gritty, but I wanted more heart, actually. That's what was missing for me.

And then for the movie, they did all these, like, flashbacks that tell kind of, like, the broader story of J.D. Vance's life. And in the beginning, you were just being bombarded with time jumps. And each one requires a bit of exposition to help tell you, like, who these characters are, where they are. And that just made that first half so slow. So I was surprised by how much I didn't hate the second half, but I don't know if, like, that is, like, the greatest bar for, like, a recommendation. Like, I didn't hate the second half.

HOLMES: (Laughter) It's not even I didn't hate the movie. It's I didn't hate the second half of the movie. I agree with you. I think what they're trying to do with the structure is so sort of unnecessarily fussy. You mentioned it being dated. It feels extremely old-fashioned to me and not necessarily in the good way in which I sometimes feel like movies are old-fashioned. I think Ron Howard is somebody who has made a lot of movies about kind of American mythology. And, like, I think it works the best when he's doing something about, like, Apollo 13, like, the space program. Like, these are American myths and they're kind of, you know - what is the true story of greatness and all that weird stuff? But I think when he gets a hold of this, it becomes a story that's a little bit one note because it's trying to make this a bigger story than it is.

Because one of the things you get from the - just the intro of "Hillbilly Elegy," the book, is - he kind of says, well, I'm 31 and I really didn't do any - like, this is not an academic work. I didn't really study anything. This is just me talking about my experience. But then he goes on to make all these incredibly broad generalizations about people. So I don't think the book has the heft to be the movie that this movie wants to be.

MASTERS: And it's so interesting that you say he wanted it to be this massive, big story because at the same time, as you noted, he'd removed all the politics from it. And so he wanted to cover the whole country but also neutered it. So, like, it's missing the bite.

HOLMES: Right.

MASTERS: I personally don't want to see a movie, like, just about Trump voters and, like, seeing people exploring that. But at the same time, like, you can lean into politics without, like, name-checking politicians.

HOLMES: Right. Also, at the beginning of the book, he goes out of his way to kind of say - Vance does - he kind of goes out of his way to say, I feel the same way about white people on welfare as I do on Black people on welfare. And you can't - this is not a story, particularly, like, if anything, even more in 2020 than in 2016, although in 2016 as well, you can't just excise race from a story about any community, including this community. And I think because the film kind of follows the book in that regard and doesn't really want to talk about that element of anything, it feels like, again, why are we here? But I did want to ask you - because you, like me, I think, have admired some of these actors before, right?

MASTERS: Oh, no, no, no. I don't admire them. I love them. I would die for Glenn Close.

HOLMES: Oh, you love them. Good, good, good clarification - important.

MASTERS: Yes. I mean, we're going to see her get an Oscar in her lifetime. Is it going to be over this role? Well, you know what? Maybe. We're in a pandemic and she's competing against, like, "Trolls World Tour," so, you know, better chances than usual.

HOLMES: (Laughter).

MASTERS: But I think what's so exciting about this performance is it follows that great tradition of putting this gorgeous, glamorous woman in a bad wig and makeup. And I'm sure people have mentioned this on the show before, and I'm sure that person has been Glen Weldon, right? But we keep repeating this because it works. It's just exciting to see. I mean, what did Charlize Theron win for? I don't know. The movie really made her ugly. And I felt like that's what we are watching. And we had a semblance of that, too, with Glenn Close and Amy Adams. And I just thought that Glenn was a lot more successful. You know, Amy had the louder role, and that allowed Glenn Close to play the quieter version of this, you know, what could have been Cruella de Vil, like, part two?

HOLMES: Yeah, yeah.

MASTERS: I think that I actually loved Glenn Close's performance. What did you think?

HOLMES: I mean, I think there's only so much you can do with a character that, to me, doesn't feel very fully built out. But I definitely think that character is a more interesting person than the Amy Adams character. I mean, it's a good performance in the sense that she's a good actress. I don't like the phrase awards bait because there's nothing wrong with things that win awards, but it feels effortful in a very particular way.

MASTERS: I agree completely. I couldn't help but watch this and think that each of these actresses' agents sent them a script being like, you can get nominated for this. And look, there's a scene where you yell and there's also a scene where you cry. It's our lucky day.

HOLMES: Right.

MASTERS: I do appreciate, though, that the script made it clear that while there was child abuse - and it was sometimes shocking and hard to watch - that these women, the mom and the grandma, they loved the kids and the grandkids so much...

HOLMES: Sure. Yes, absolutely.

MASTERS: ...Right. They wanted the best for these kids. They just were really bad at getting it, right? They didn't know how to do that. And so I did appreciate that it wasn't all, like, a stereotype. Because I thought that the filmmaking relied on such stereotypes that - again, I don't like to feel dumb. With the dinner fork scene where he didn't know which fork is what, we've seen that in 100 movies, and I don't know why we relied on that.

HOLMES: Seriously.

MASTERS: Yeah. I mean, to me, the movie felt like a photo album - right? - and you're just, like, pointing out pictures and telling each story and then moving on to the next picture. You're not telling a full story.

HOLMES: Exactly.

MASTERS: And, like, the time jumps didn't help that. But like, none of this was helped. And you mentioned that the script is written by Vanessa Taylor. I was shocked to see that she did "The Shape Of Water" because to me, that is a kooky movie with a hard-to-pull-off concept where you're making me root for a sexy fish. And they pulled it off remarkably. And this is arguably the softer lift. And it fell flat for me.

HOLMES: Yeah. Well, there's such a funny thing about how I think a movie like this almost happens without anyone necessarily wanting to do the specific project that it is. Because it comes from this, like, phenomenon book. So you have the phenomenon book. Then you - I have no idea what order all these people were attached to it in. But it's like you attach the screenwriter from "The Shape Of Water." You attach Ron Howard. You attach Glenn Close. You attach Amy Adams. And all of a sudden, it feels like this big movie that, like, at some point, nobody has done the foundational work for. That's how it felt to me.

MASTERS: Right. And then they made the really easy mistake of holding themselves too tightly to the book, you know? Every single anecdote we see was pulled almost directly from the pages. At one point, we see, like, the grandma lighting the grandpa on fire when he's drunk. It just kind of like - they were just, like, copying and pasting certain lines and putting it in the script. And then, well, Glenn Close signed on, so I guess we're going to make it tomorrow.

HOLMES: Exactly.

MASTERS: It was a lovely first draft, and I would've loved to see, like, what they can do with the other drafts, honestly.

HOLMES: It needed a more fully developed screenplay, I think. I think that's the biggest problem.

MASTERS: Yes, and move away from the book. You know, this is a movie version. But again, you're wondering why is J.D. Vance is the main character? It's like - it's 'cause it's his memoir.

HOLMES: Yeah. Well, we want to know what you think about "Hillbilly Elegy." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter - @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Jeffrey, thank you so much for being here.

MASTERS: This is so fun. Thank you for having me.

HOLMES: And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We will see you all tomorrow when we will be revisiting the Disney film "The Emperor's New Groove."

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