'Hillbilly Elegy' Review Round-Up: Ron Howard's Shameless Oscar Bait Drama Is Very, Very Bad

In 2016, J.D. Vance published his memoir Hillbilly Elegy, which became a nationwide sensation after the election of Donald Trump, with media pundits scrambling to understand Trump's influence over the rust belt states, or "Trump country," as it was dubbed. Four years and one Trump presidential election loss later, Ron Howard's adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy hits Netflix and the Oscar contender circuit, complete with transformative scenery-chewing performances from Oscar nominees Glenn Close and Amy Adams. Maybe it was the ill timing, or the blatant Oscar bait, but Hillbilly Elegy has not been well-received by critics in their recently released reviews.

See our round-up of Hillbilly Elegy reviews and early buzz below.

Before we get to the reviews, here are a few Twitter reactions to Hillbilly Elegy, which range from vehement dislike to apathy, with some praise for Glenn Close and Amy Adams' performances.

And now onto the reviews, all of which are fairly negative toward Ron Howard's Oscar-contending drama.

Vanity Fair calls Hillbilly Elegy "prestige bait that uses an awfully rusty lure, tossed with careless pride from its ship of Hollywood fools," expanding:

Like the worst kind of memoir adaptation, every scene in Hillbilly Elegy is an Event. The Day of the Fight, the Day of the Arrest, the Day of the Bad Dinner with the Snooty Lawyer Who Mocks J.D.'s Upbringing. That last scene also happens to be the same day J.D. finds out that his mother has relapsed and is in the hospital. The film leaves pretty much zero room for anything quotidian, anything usual, which might give the story some kind of subtle human texture, and make the dramatic stuff actually land with the intended impact. It's all yelling all the time, an exhausting litany of bad moments that renders the family's story just about meaningless.

The Playlist wrote that the film "fails as a drama" and is "even worse as a commentary," losing even the sociopolitical themes of its original text, J.D. Vance's memoir of the same name, which blew up in the aftermath of the 2016 election after the media leapt to the "authentic" depiction of Trump country:

Based on the memoir of self-described "nationalist" J.D. Vance and directed by Ron Howard with the subtlety of a sledgehammer symphony, 'Elegy' isn't the worst motion picture of the year (though it's up – or down – there), but it is the most shameless, a naked play for awards and prestige that doesn't even have the courage of its sketchy source material's convictions.

Vox reviewer Alissa Wilkinson calls Hillbilly Elegy "possibly the worst movie I've seen in years," writing:

I am surprised it's as bad as it is. Written for the screen by Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of WaterHope Springs) and directed by Ron Howard, it is distractingly Hollywoodified, a rich person's idea of what it is like to be a poor person, a tone-deaf attempt to assuage a very particular kind of liberal guilt by reifying the very thing that caused the guilt in the first place. And, perhaps worst of all, it's a very dull movie.

Variety praises Amy Adams and Glenn Close's performances for their "down-home flamboyance," but calls Hillbilly Elegy "Ron Howard's otherwise overly safe adaptation":

As long as Close is acting up an award-worthy storm (her performance is actually quite meticulous), "Hillbilly Elegy" is never less than alive. Adams does some showpiece acting of her own, but as skillful as her performance is, she never gets us to look at Bev with pity and terror.

Indiewire praises "an excellent performance from Glenn Close," but writes "this apolitical adaptation can't save J.D. Vance's memoir from its own self-interest." The review writes:

"Hillbilly Elegy" is — for better or worse — exactly the kind of milquetoast and capital-"E" Empathetic movie you would expect a bunch of Hollywood liberals to make from Vance's memoir. The source material has been stripped of its libertarian streak (in addition to any other social commentary) and sandblasted into something that more closely resembles a shouty episode of "This Is Us" in both structure and tone than it does a pre-history of the Trump era or a caricature of those who capitalized on it.

Uproxx's Mike Ryan muses that he doesn't know "who Hillbilly Elegy is for. Well, except maybe J.D. Vance." He writes:

There's a difference between that, empathizing with someone who is really struggling, and just a blanket "Trump voter." There are many successful people who are Trump voters. And, at this point, I really don't care at this point what makes them tick.

In its review, AV Club hopes that "Hillbilly Elegy [will] mark the end of Trump-era myth-making about the white working class":

To give it just a small crumb of credit, Hillbilly Elegy, the new Ron Howard film based on J.D. Vance's 2016 memoir of the same name, doesn't play as an apology for the toxic racism of white America. But like those New York Times profiles, it views its subjects as zoo animals, offering the same enduring stereotypes about Appalachia—namely, that it's full of people too ignorant to realize that they're being victimized by their own bad choices—peddled by Vance's book.

The Hollywood Reporter was one of the kinder reviews, calling the film "sympathetic but less than stirring portrait of hard-bitten lives":

Whatever lessons it might want to impart, Hillbilly Elegy doesn't romanticize its subjects or package their struggles in neat bromides or cornpone redemption. In the late going especially, the director and Basso give a persuasive weight to the friction between family responsibility and personal ambition. There are moments that clang off-key or land with the flatness of cliché, but there are also sharp observations across the urban-rural divide.


Hillbilly Elegy debuts in select theaters around the country this week ahead of its Netflix streaming debut on November 24, 2020.