Some belated thoughts on this weepy adaptation before they’re even more overdue, plus the excellent burger at Cozy Royale.
Opie really leans into the elegy part. The technically-proficient biopic rues a backwards nostalgia and fatalist future, the Eden of childhood summers in Hill Country, and a doomed future. The Hans Zimmer score marches, dirge-like, in the background, a variegated epic with sweeping strings. It’s an effective piece of music, patriotic almost, just shy of sympathy-manipulation. There’s already enough of that on screen. The movie flashes back to childhood traumas, the makings of a man, to periodically to revive your waning attention and cull your emotions.
If you don’t know by now, J.D. Vance grew up in an Ohio suburb, which isn’t exactly Hill Country (Appalachia, from which “hillbillies” hail), but his grandma was from there so he proudly lays claim to it as well. Eventually he graduated from Yale Law (undergrad was at Ohio State, an experience unremarked upon in the movie), clerked for Brett Kavanaugh, and wrote the book on which this movie is based. He is in most views of the world a success.
I remember the book in passing— notable book sales and glowing reviews, a sociology of the white Trump voter, the obstinacy and numbers of which were proliferating before our very eyes. What I didn’t know about were the pans and criticisms of its narrow-mindedness, which in retrospect were inevitable — the second half of the title is “A Memoir of A Family and Culture in Crisis,” a telling blanket statement if ever there was one. Vance from the start deigned to speak for Hill Country, and its inhabitants said shut the fuck up.
Lessons learned about the poor working class from this movie: Family is all you’ve got, even if they’re flawed. Your mother will make your life hell, but also make you into who you are. Society commands an unerring piety for elders and even greater respect for the dead. None of these seem very original or inspiring. In fact, these seem generic, wholly relatable family-first values transferable to a number of different cultures — which is perhaps the point. These subthemes spike the air, but don’t cohere into a thundering mass.
The film’s clincher, which I only deduced because of Hans, and Glenn Close, who gets to do a lot of Serious Acting, is as follows: the death of success comes from a lack of trying. This myth is illustrated by J.D.’s drug-addict mother (Amy Adams, never not good, but this seems too easy) without further investigation into the context of her circumstances. (I wasn’t expecting an expose on Mallinckrodt, but acknowledging America’s opioid epidemic or even basic screenplay deets on how she gets/affords the drugs would’ve sufficed.)
Despite Howard’s refusal to make this into a political picture, an exquisite conservatism is baked into the text: to make a way for yourself, you only need to work hard. The memoir extrapolated a political lesson from personal experience and the blinkered film elevates this ideaology. The movie has appeased very few. Viewers from these regions rightfully protest the stereotypical presentation of their lives, and those who already overvalue personality responsibility will stick to their guns, perpetuating myths about the poor. A convenient capper to the Trump era.
Links and other pressing observations
The poor Vances seem to have three houses — Mamaw’s, Papaw’s, and mom’s — which is three more than my family had growing up.
In the movie, getting ahead includes bullying a Black woman, and moving on up means... marrying Asian.
Somewhere in New Jersey there is also a gas station with free wi-fi. When it’s too slow on his laptop, J.D. scolds the attendant while getting his tank filled. In his commitment to realism, at least Ron Howards knows that Garden State doesn’t let you pump your own gas.
On Hillbilly Elegy’s lack of conviction, Vox
On Ron Howard posing as populist, The National Review
Stories on Appalachia, Belt Magazine
Truthfully I went there for the burger. Sometimes a gently handled hunk of ground beef assembled in golden ratio with the property accouterments is all you need in life. The one from Cozy Royale deceived me. Encircled by a hot swarm of fries, it looked paltry on the plate and condescended to my appetite. One bite told me otherwise. The unassuming burger had an acceptable char that gave way to profound but not overwhelming beefiness — rare and coarse, fairly funkified, not as to the extent of Minetta Tavern say, but with more oomph than your average bistro. It also shelters onion slices and pickles, and employs the now standard brioche bun, which I don’t always love. But the onions weren't raw, the pickles are sour more than sweet, and the brioche was griddled, a mark of swift genius.
The meat-heavy establishment has been fashioned with a streak of Appalachian cooking. Its owners also run a butcher shop in Williamsburg and Cozy Royale, their first restaurant, nods towards their background (PA and OH). Appalachian cuisine has historically sourced what’s available in geography. It has a propensity for the foraged and fermented by default. (Wild mountain leeks aka ramps were common before they became the prized bounty of the nyc farmers market.) Cozy Royale is as specific in its achievements as Hillbilly Elegy is mistakenly universal. The menu is dotted with new twists on old things, like a salad of fermented corn, and another with pickled bologna, and classics, like pepperoni rolls. In a haphazard scene in the movie, J.D. returns home and eats fried bologna, which he dare not do up North. A pickled version of the sandwich appears here.
I didn’t get to try any of these. It was 2pm on a Saturday — everything was brunch.. I was disarmed by a plate of sticky sausages fused together like gyoza, by some slurry miracle. I considered returning in three hours after walking off the calories to try more. For now, I plan to cook out of Victuals until spring when the restaurant reopens and I can further assess its gussied up and delicious take on Appalachian food, which runs the gamut of Cherokee, Italian, Greman, and African influences.
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