Donald Trump’s surprise victory in 2016 caught a lot of the chattering classes off guard, prompting a fair amount of self-flagellation about “liberal bubbles” and such, with the New York Times and other upscale publications dispatching phalanxes of Ivy League-educated reporters to take dictation from white supremacists at Rust Belt diners in a maddeningly repetitive series of articles aiming to explain red states to their readers. One of the key texts from this period was “Hillbilly Elegy,” a best-selling memoir by CNN commentator J.D. Vance that confirmed a lot of popular conservative media-driven delusions about how the “real America” is supposedly where fewer Americans live, and that typical Trump voters are pure-hearted, barefoot yokels down by the fishing hole, rather than say, noisy jerks with expensive boats and dudes who like to hang enormous flags from the back of their $50,000 pickup trucks.
Things move slowly in the movie industry, which because of budgets and scheduling logistics can usually be counted on to be a couple of years behind current events. This may explain why two cluelessly condescending Hollywood trips to the heartland are dropping this week on separate streaming services, both feeling like overcompensation measures from 2017. Amazon’s “Uncle Frank” is the more benign of the two, with “Six Feet Under” scribe Alan Ball telling the story of a gay man coming out of the closet in 1970s South Carolina. The same day, Netflix unveils Ron Howard’s horrendous adaptation of “Hillbilly Elegy,” a staggeringly inauthentic attempt at cornpone melodrama that plays like this year’s “Cats,” except with screaming rednecks instead of singing strays.
The best part of “Uncle Frank” is the reserved dignity Paul Bettany brings to its title character, an NYU professor whose niece Beth (played by Sophia Lillis, the Molly Ringwald lookalike from “It”) wistfully recalls his words of wisdom and neatly-clipped fingernails. These two dreamy, curious souls remain a world apart from the dutiful wives and beer-swilling good ole boys at Bledsoe family gatherings, which are occasionally terrorized by quick-tempered patriarch Daddy Mac (Stephen Root), who has little patience for his fancy-pants, big city son.
There’s a hint of the movie that might have been when Beth enrolls at NYU, the young farm girl seeing a larger world for the first time and discovering that her uncle lives in sin with Wally (Peter Macdissi) an extremely endearing Saudi immigrant who is considerably less discreet than his life partner. Alas, Daddy Mac drops dead from a heart attack and the trio must take a road trip back to South Carolina, with Uncle Frank confronting a buried trauma that takes the form of a gradually expanding flashback and assorted other plot contrivances too groan-worthy to be recounted here.
Ball’s only other feature directorial credit is the execrable 2007 “Towelhead,” and though he may have won an Oscar for scripting “American Beauty,” he’ll always be a TV writer through and through. (I spent 1999 screaming about how his tragic ending to that bizarrely overpraised cultural curio was kicked off by a misunderstanding out of “Three’s Company,” with Chris Cooper mistaking his son rolling a joint for performing fellatio in such klutzy fashion you could easily imagine Don Knotts’ Mr. Furley doing the same before bugging his eyes out at the audience.) For “Uncle Frank,” Ball has assembled an entire season’s worth of excellent actors and intriguing storylines, then tries to stuff them all into 95 minutes.
Allegedly the protagonist, Beth gets lost in the shuffle and most of the time it feels like Ball would really rather be writing for Wally. Fine performers like Lois Smith, Judy Greer and Margo Martindale are stuck sitting around the living room with little to do, the latter seemingly only here because I think there’s some sort of law that you aren’t allowed to make a movie like this without Margo Martindale. As in “American Beauty,” the third act is thrown into motion by a dumb, forehead-smacking plot device that nobody would believe in a million years. I suppose one could say the same for Ball’s left-field happy ending, yet I kind of fell for it myself simply because Steve Zahn is one of the greatest actors in the world who can sell me on just about anything.
There are filmmakers like David Gordon Green, Lee Daniels and Steven Soderbergh who understand the American South and seem to sense it in their bones. Then there’s Ron Howard, a capable studio craftsman of genial, populist entertainments who blunders badly whenever he tries to make important prestige pictures. It’s amusing to note that Howard grew up in front of the cameras on “The Andy Griffith Show,” as the blighted Ohio of his “Hillbilly Elegy” is like Mayberry’s oxy-addled inverse, full of boarded-up small businesses and junk cars in the yard. Yet, it feels as false as any sitcom set, a Hollywood vision of poverty with its actresses dutifully uglied up for award consideration. These characters aren’t inhabited so much as they are placed on display like zoo animals for further study. Whatever’s happening here, it isn’t empathy.
Screenwriter Vanessa Taylor has stripped away all the history and sociological commentary from Vance’s memoir, leaving a tediously straightforward story of a dull law student (Gabriel Basso) who almost blows a big job interview because he has to go home and deal with his ungrateful, histrionic mother (Amy Adams) after she overdoses again. His trip is peppered with semi-coherent flashbacks to the young Vance coming of age as an overweight, ne’er-do-well lout like all the others in his town, until the one day he overhears his Mamaw (a grotesque Glenn Close) asking for a handout from the Meals on Wheels guy. J.D. promptly quits boozing and drugging, gets a job and goes to Yale, unlike all those other shiftless layabouts in this godforsaken backwater.
“Hillbilly Elegy” peddles the kind of bootstrap fantasies that happily ignores any realities of addiction and systemic inequality, leaving Close and Adams in a competition as to who can play the biggest gargoyle. These two marvelous actresses have been also-rans at so many Oscar ceremonies (Adams has gone home empty-handed six times, Close seven) their garish, gargantuan performances here have me honestly worried what they might do if they don’t win this time. I’ve seen the picture described as a white Tyler Perry movie, which I can’t get on board with because at least Tyler Perry movies are fun to watch and have something to say about the underrepresented communities in which they take place. Devoid of politics or insight, “Hillbilly Elegy” is just the story of how some jerk from Yale got a fancy job at a law firm.