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'Hillbilly Elegy': Southern saga has corn not grit

Glenn Close plays a chain-smoking Southern grandma in

Glenn Close plays a chain-smoking Southern grandma in Netflix's "Hillbilly Elegy." Credit: Neflix/Lacey Terrell

THE MOVIE “Hillbilly Elegy”

RATED R (strong language, brief violence and images of children in distress)

WHEN | WHERE Netflix on Nov. 24

WHAT IT’S ABOUT A poor kid from Ohio makes his way to Yale Law School in "Hillbilly Elegy," Ron Howard’s adaptation of J.D. Vance’s bestselling memoir. Starring Amy Adams as Vance’s drug-addicted mother, Bev, and Glenn Close as his chain-smoking grandmother, Mamaw, the movie connects J.D.’s sometimes harrowing childhood to his insecure adulthood among well-bred Ivy Leaguers.

MY SAY Vance’s memoir arrived with excellent timing in the summer of 2016, as big-city Americans were asking why rural Americans planned to vote for Donald Trump as President. "Hillbilly Elegy" presented itself as the book with the answers. Here was a study of that strange and hostile tribe known as the Poor Whites, authored by one of their own.

As a personal narrative, the book was often compelling, but Vance’s portraits of hardscrabble Southerners (his family originally hailed from Kentucky) rarely rose above cliches. As for his sociopolitical commentary, it was underwhelming at best. After some 260 pages, Vance’s solution to generations of poverty, drugs and violence turns out to be positive thinking and your own darn bootstraps. "Hillbilly Elegy" was not only reductive and facile, it felt like a marketing con job — a way of selling old rural stereotypes right back to us, with a stamp of "authenticity."

Now imagine a cinematic adaptation that for once feels too faithful to the book, and you’ve got Ron Howard’s version of "Hillbilly Elegy." It comes on as socially relevant but it’s really a naked Oscar grab on every level, from the twangy performances of its two stars to Vanessa Taylor's s plight-by-numbers script. This is a movie based on fact, and yet — for all the boarded-up storefronts, rusty pickups, shirtless dudes and clouds of smoke from Mamaw’s Kools — it feels like trite fiction.

Like the book, the film sketches its characters broadly. Bev is the cautionary tale, once so smart and pretty, now a bitter single mom with a pill problem. Mamaw, is the proverbial tough old bird, stooped and jut-jawed, with an endless supply of colorful expressions. The young J.D. (an engaging Owen Asztalos) is the at-risk youth; the older J.D. (Gabriel Basso, pleasant if nothing else) becomes the success story. At Yale, he hides his unattractive past from his Indian American girlfriend, Usha (Freida Pinto).

Almost nothing works right in this movie. Howard toggles between J.D.’s past and present but makes mostly superficial psychological connections (this car reminds him of that car). Maryse Alberti’s bright, pleasant cinematography is exactly the wrong way to convey the despair of an empty cupboard or a dirty needle. Close and Adams act their hearts out, but it’s really the makeup and costume departments that deserve praise. Lines that are meant to ring in our ears — "If you don’t like it, you can talk to the barrel of my gun" — instead just plop to the ground.

Even by the standards of Hollywood hokum, "Hillbilly Elegy" feels like a lot of overfried baloney. It’s a true story that rings false, a glimpse into an insular culture that tells us nothing new.

BOTTOM LINE Howard’s adaptation of Vance’s memoir is less social realism than Hollywood corn.

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