"Hillbilly Elegy" is a film that really should have been a slam dunk.
You've got director Ron Howard, a pair of the top actresses in the business today in Amy Adams and Glenn Close, and a screenplay based on a highly successful memoir.
Yet the sum of the parts never quite add up. This is a film that is competently made and has some interesting work from Close, but it's a bit inconsistent and never quite sure what it wants to say.
"Elegy" is based on J.D. Vance's memoir about three generations of an Appalachian family. As the film begins Vance (Gabriel Basso) is a Yale law student trying to get a summer internship when he gets a call from his sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett) about his mother Bev (Adams).
Bev has been hospitalized after a drug overdose, with Lindsay needing Vance's help to get their mom to agree to go into rehab to fight an addiction she has struggled with for as long as the children can remember.
As J.D. makes the trip home, "Elegy" uses flashbacks to show us how Bev's addictions shaped his childhood and how his relationship with his grandmother (Close) helped him through some of the lowest moments with his mom.
I haven't read the novel, but I do know "Elegy" was a bit of a lightning rod for its political commentary on how the economic struggles in that area has turned that region from blue to red.
Vanessa Taylor's screenplay chooses to take away (most of) the politics and instead focus on the addiction and how it effects everyone not just the addict.
That approach creates a film that feels a little overstuffed, with threads and ideas introduced but eventually taking a back seat to Bev's instability. That would be fine, but "Elegy" proves to be at best a run of the mill family drama.
Basso gets overshadowed by his female co-stars, making his plight not as engaging as it should have been.
Close has strong moments as the family's matriarch, the kind of showy performance that usually gets awards notice. She is the best thing about "Elegy," but the work still wouldn't rank among the the highest points of her outstanding career.
Adams seems to be miscast, despite her best efforts. It's a role that I feel like doesn't play to Adams strengths as an actress, but I certainly don't fault her for accepting this challenge. The problem is when you have a character so essential to the film's success that never quite clicks it leaves everything else a bit off sync as well.
And ultimately that is the problem with "Hillbilly Elegy." It's not really a misstep for all involved, but more of a film that just never finds its stride - unable to hit the high bar it has set for itself.