J.D. Vance's 2016 memoir Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis came out at a perfect time to be glommed onto by political and cultural commentators from every corner who desperately needed something that could shore up their Grand Narrative about what happened in American politics that year. I myself haven't read it and cannot imagine that I will read it, but it never sounded like it deserved that prominence: it would appear that Vance fudged and aggrandised his own history to build out a "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" narrative that had very little to do with actual life as it is actually lived in the poor parts of Appalachia, and did so in a way that encouraged well-off conservatives and liberals alike to read their pre-existing commitments onto the material. It became a political football, in other words, and like most things that do, it has become basically impossible to talk about it as a political object in any honest way.

In a perverse way, this means that the new film adaptation, adapted by Vanessa Taylor for Ron Howard to direct under the Imagine Entertainment shingle, distributed through Netflix, is the most appropriate possible cinematic embodiment the material was ever going to receive. Because if there's one filmmaker you can trust to include not one trace of deliberate political commentary in his films, whether they would benefit from it or not, it would be Ron Howard, perhaps our most reliable "get the work done" hack director now active (if he did not have that honor before 2018's Solo: A Star Wars Story, surely he has earned it now). And by God, has he ever turned in a resolutely apolitical version of Hillbilly Elegy. It is a film that has absolutely nothing to say about the world in which it is set, which has been carefully denuded of specificity on any level - the easy thing to say is that it has an outsider's view of Appalachia, without any knowledge of the small details that flesh the place out, but even an outsider would have probably fallen into some tiny snatches of local color here or there. This feels like it has very pointed)ly attempted to remove all the "culture" from "A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis", and I frankly don't think it's left all that much "Crisis" either.

So that leaves with "A Memoir of a Family", and that is precisely what the film Hillbilly Elegy provides: the story of how 2011-era J.D. (Gabriel Basso), a broke Yale Law student hustling for a summer internship, is made to instead devote much of his precious mental energy to reflecting upon 1997-era J.D. (Owen Asztalos), and his relationship with his grandmother Mamaw (Glenn Close), a cantankerous old woman, and his mother Bev (Amy Adams), an abuser of various substances with self-destructive tastes in men. For Bev has recently overdosed on heroin, and this has obliged J.D. to pause in his non-stop ass-kissing of crusty old lawyers so that he can return back to his home in the rolling Appalachian hill country of, let me see here, suburban Cincinnati. But it's okay, because as adult J.D. voiceovers at the start, his body might belong to Ohio, but his heart belongs to the Kentucky hills where Mamaw grew up, and where the family visits on summers. His brain, of course, belongs to Yale, and one of the film's most massive miscalculations lies in thinking that having to juggle law school with family makes him sympathetic, and not just a giant douchebag lawyer who'd grow up to become a venture capitalist.

The point being, Hillbilly Elegy sort of has a narrative thrust in the 2011 material and none at all in 1997, which is basically just a memoiristic array of scenes that try to suggest the vibe of J.D.'s life as an adolescent with an unstable mother and a stable but prickly grandmother who ended up doing most of the work of raising him. It is certainly not a very urgent movie in either of these time frames (it also, very briefly, occupies a third, when Mamaw was a young woman, in a strange messy dog-end that does absolutely nothing but give the design team an extra day of work), casually shuffling through its scenes with a casual emptiness that might, in a better movie, even feel like a decent way of getting at the summery nostalgia of J.D. remembrances. In this movie, they feel like little modules, placed next to each other but not given any kind of unity and forward thrust. This has always been Howard's great weakness as a director: everything feels more episodic when he's done with it, and in the case of something that already is as episodic as Taylor's screenplay, he ends up rendering the scenes as lonely little islands of plot rising out of a fog. Hillbilly Elegy feels like it exists in a constant state of "right now", not in a way that benefits it: there no sense of accumulation or momentum, or even of speed; it just seems like we're watching random conversations spill out at some length until they stop. The score by Hans Zimmer and David Fleming, while not doing anything especially exciting or new, at least provides some kind of velocity for the movie, a sense of forward movement. It is the only thing that does so.

The whole movie is stiff and weary - again, a better film might have tied this to themes. Maryse Alberti's cinematography, which renders the setting in a shabby array of flat greyish-greens and greenish-brown, is dessicated and dim in a way that might get at the collapse of the Appalachian way of life, if the film actually cared about that. But it is very clear the the only priority here was tracing J.D.'s relationships with Mamaw and Bev, and at a layer of remove, their relationships with each other, and any sense of their being a living, breathing - or even dying - world around them has been ruthlessly scrubbed from the film. It is, in this telling, only a character study, and the glum visuals make it a fairly dour and heavy one.

This means, at any rate, that it essentially becomes the Close & Adams show; the two actors playing J.D. are doing fine work, but the script gives Basso very little to work with - he is, for example, powerless to salvage the goofy nonsense of a scene where he calls his girlfriend (Freida Pinto, with absolutely nothing to do) in a panic to ask her about how to use forks, a scene that plays as unfunny anti-hick comedy more than an insightful look into classism - and Asztalos's role is much more to observe the two leading women than to do act on his own. And so we end with the movie stars, both of them wearing impressive quantities of uglifying makeup and, in Close's case, shapeless, baggy clothes. These are blatant Oscar-courting turns from two of our most Oscar-hungry performers, and neither one rises above the clichés built into the women's appearances; Close, at least, isn't doing anything to embarrass herself. It's a pretty standard-issue "I'm going to growl and snap, but then sometimes I'll stop and look at you long and lovingly after the growling is done, and this is how you will realise that I have a tender heart that I don't know how to express" performance, done well by an impeccable craftsman who isn't being visibly challenged by the material.

Adams, meanwhile, is playing the villain from a Bugs Bunny cartoon. She has by far the splashiest role, a addle-brained, paranoid junkie, and she uses this as a lease to go real big. Which wasn't probably ever going to work - Close rather pointedly isn't going big, even in some places where the script is inviting her to do so, and she commands the camera and the movie. Adams is hamming up a storm as a messy wreck, prone to yelling and gesticulating and flinging her head around to make her hair all frizzy; she also trots out a thicker accent than most of the cast (Basso's is easily the thickest), but inconsistently, and with no rhyme or reason to when it gets more or less pronounced. If Hillbilly Elegy was ever looking to be a sympathetic portrait of a woman on the edge, it wasn't going to meet that goal in the face of Adams's tacky performance, which plays up the bullish white trash elements of the character to aggressively noisy levels; put a clay jug with XXX painted on it into her hand instead of needles full of smack, and we'd be squarely in the territory of a bad 1940s dialect comedy.

Adams is at least colorfully awful; most of Hillbilly Elegy is just a snoozy bore, with lifeless visuals to along with its plodding, directionless storytelling. It is maybe the most impersonal film of Howard's singularly impersonal career, an act of lacquering the story for ease of awards-friendly uptake. It's a film with absolutely nothing on its mind, and no perspective on anything it depicts. It just gets through the material with grim professional competence, and not the slightest spark of artistry.