Film and TV

In Defense of Ron Howard (Despite the Disastrous Hillbilly Elegy)

Hillbilly Elegy almost made us forget Splash and Apollo 13. Almost.
Hillbilly Elegy almost made us forget Splash and Apollo 13. Almost. Dave Kotinsky/Getty
Every year, there’s at least one film that earns the label of “failed Oscar bait.” These are the films with lofty ambitions, big-name movie stars, prime fall release dates and seemingly noble and important ambitions that aim for all the glory of awards season only to land with a thud.

This year, that honor falls to Hillbilly Elegy, an old-fashioned family drama based on the bestselling (and wildly controversial) autobiography of venture capitalist J.D. Vance. With the backing of Netflix, a November debut and the talents of Amy Adams and Glenn Close, Hillbilly Elegy has been the laughingstock of the film community since its release, landing with a dismal 26% on Rotten Tomatoes and 39% on Metacritic.

While the controversy regarding the film has largely centered on Vance’s highly conservative, nationalistic views, much of the criticism toward the film is aimed at its director, Ron Howard. The 66-year-old filmmaker was once the model of a Hollywood success story (a former child star who became a serious actor, and later, a serious director), but now Howard’s reached the point in his career where he’s earned the reputation of being old and out of touch.

And, well, this might be slightly true. Howard’s go-for-broke, “Can’t we all get along?” attitude to storytelling might not make him the ideal person to make a biopic about someone that fetishizes the white working-class struggle. It’s quite possible that, as many critics have suggested, Hillbilly Elegy is one of the year’s biggest disasters. But that doesn’t mean Howard isn’t deserving of our respect.

Howard is the type of cinematic veteran who’s earned the clout that allows him to fail.

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The filmmaker has (to date) directed 26 narrative feature films. Not all of them are great. In particular, some of his more recent efforts have caught him more flack than usual, particularly the failed Vince Vaughn romp The Dilemma, the thunderously dull Moby Dick epic In the Heart of the Sea, and the rare Star Wars box office bomb, Solo: A Star Wars Story (a film that’s wildly underrated, but that’s a different story).

That being said, Howard is the type of cinematic veteran who’s earned the clout that allows him to fail. He’s certainly earned the right to experiment; he’s the rare filmmaker who's been able to tackle dramas, comedies and blockbusters in equal measure. More than anything, Howard has a sense of formal sincerity that guides his human stories, something that’s often lost in a cynical industry that puts more and more emphasis on established properties and franchises.

The director has always had a sense of humor; early films like Grand Theft Auto, Night Shift, Gung Ho and Splash showed he could make zany romps for adults and children alike, but he was also someone who could mature with his material. Howard’s 1989 film Parenthood is in many ways the opposite of Hillbilly Elegy, as it’s a story that finds the humor (not the melodrama) in a family crisis, and ultimately comes out on the side of optimism. Unlike something zippier like Night Shift, Parenthood doesn’t build to a climactic finale, but rather a moment where Steve Martin just has to sit and laugh at the chaos.

This attention to detail is what prepared Howard so well for his more serious material, as even a film as grand and epic as Apollo 13 takes the time to give every single character (from Ed Harris’srelentlessly professional control guru to Kevin Bacon’s sexy astronaut) a moment of uncooked vulnerability. Howard values historical accuracy but not as much as anchoring dramatic tension with sympathy. Take Howard’s Best Picture winner A Beautiful Mind, for example; it’s a film riddled with historical inaccuracies, but it’s hard not to feel for John Nash as his genius isolates him further and further.

It’s this desire to make every character compelling that has led to some of Howard’s most interesting work, and perhaps why he chose to tackle Hillbilly Elegy. Howard has certainly dabbled in depicting unlikeable characters, with a film like Frost/Nixon asking the audience to consider Nixon’s point of view, and Rush demanding that the viewer be invested in the rivalry between two egocentric Formula 1 racers. Neither of those films is Howard endorsing his characters’ actions, but rather trying to unpack them.

A desire to do an old-school family drama with Hillbilly Elegy may seem retrograde, but Howard’s also been a filmmaker who's been able to revitalize seemingly outdated genres. With The Paper, Howard succeeded in modernizing the ‘30s screwball journalism picture. With Cinderella Man he crafted an inspirational sports story out of historical fiction. He’s even done slightly left-of-mainstream action-thrillers with films such as Ransom, Backdraft and The Missing. So, maybe Howard wasn’t completely misguided when he thought he could make a sort of modern Ordinary People with his Vance adaptation.

Howard has been making movies for over 40 years now, and it’s admirable that even his failures feel like backhanded achievements. Take his Robert Langdon trilogy of films (The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons and Inferno) for example: The fact that Howard took such high-wire nonsense and turned it into a franchise worth $1.5 billion is kind of amazing.

He’s also no stranger to being appreciated in retrospect. Some of his films, like Cocoon and EDTv, have come to be reframed as cult hits, and a film as critically bombarded as the Jim Carrey-led How The Grinch Stole Christmas has become a holiday classic for many. The 1988 fantasy epic Willow was one of Howard’s biggest bombs, but it was announced this week that it would be getting a prequel series on Disney+.

Will there be a Hillbilly Elegy prequel series in 30 years? Probably not. It will probably be forgotten six months from now, jettisoned into the wasteland of Netflix buzzy originals that no one remembers. But one legendarily bad movie, even one that features Glenn Close giving a monologue about how every person is either “a good terminator, a bad terminator and neutral,” shouldn’t color Howard’s legacy.

Whether Howard was genuinely misguided in his affection for the story or trying to elevate the material is unclear, but what is clear is his intention to make us feel something.
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Liam Gaughan has been covering film and television since before he had a driver's license, and in addition to the Observer has been published in About.com, Schmoes Know, Taste of Cinema and The Dallas Morning News. He enjoys checking classic films off of his watchlist and working on spec scripts.