Let’s get one thing out of the way, right off the bat: Hillbilly Elegy is awful. Ron Howard’s Netflix-produced adaptation of J.D. Vance’s inexplicable bestseller is among the worst films of the year, a shameless pander for awards recognition and social relevance that hollers and clangs for the better part of two hours, making lots of noise while managing to say almost nothing. It’s absolute bottom-tier work for just about everyone involved — up to and including Mr. Howard, who himself has never exactly screamed “icon of working-class ennui.”
But here’s the thing: Ron Howard is no hack. The opposite opinion — that the filmmaker is actually a perpetual Hollywood scullion, trawling the industry for work and leaving a trail of mediocre output in his wake — reliably resurfaces among devotees of le cinema popular whenever Mr. Howard comes out with a new picture. And on some level, it’s not that hard a theory to wrap your arms around. He represents a kind of vanilla baseline. He has been steadily cranking out popular entertainment that garners both awards recognition and middlebrow box-office results — while typically remaining free of any razzle-dazzle stylistic flourishes or alienating subtext — for decades. Hillbilly Elegy, while surely intended to garner both awards recognition and a glut of streaming attention, has proven to be more alienating than usual. And so criticism of the story and Howard’s decision to adapt it is well deserved.
Yet the existence of this lackluster movie is hardly proof of Howard’s supposed lifelong hackery. Arraign him for opting to bring to life a memoir that caricatures the very people it’s purportedly exalting. But condemn his entire body of work as trifle? That is a stale take, leftover from the ’90s and early 2000s, when the director’s brand of mid-budget, adult-oriented, studio-funded filmmaking was the norm rather than the exception. Back then we took his breezy, casually smart (but not too smart) crowd pleasers — in short supply these days thanks to the Superhero Industrial Complex — for granted. But with the benefit of hindsight, his filmography speaks for itself: It’s loaded with not only good-to-great mass entertainments (Night Shift, Splash, Cocoon, Backdraft, Ransom, Cinderella Man, Frost/Nixon, Rush) but ambitious and interesting semi-failures (Willow, Far and Away, EDtv, The Missing, In The Heart of the Sea), and, by my count, three stone-cold masterpieces: Parenthood, The Paper, and Apollo 13. Let me explain.
Parenthood came first. Howard’s background in television — and the background of the movie’s screenwriters, Howard’s longtime collaborators Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel — made the ensemble family comedy/drama sound like a feature-length TV show. (Unsurprisingly, it’s been adapted into one twice, the first time with a promising young actor named Leonardo DiCaprio in a supporting role). But Howard rather brilliantly turned those expectations inside out. What resulted is a funny picture, but not one that chases laughs. Howard knows how to execute a punchline without it feeling like a punchline. He knows when to play the drama, the moments when he must lean into the pain and not rely on any easy release valve. This is his Altman movie, with a big, busy cast of characters living their messy lives, interacting and interlocking for small moments.
The Paper was met with muted reviews and an uninspiring box office welcome when it landed in 1994, but the film has since found an audience of diehards who understand it as a contemporary counterpart to the great, crackling newspaper pictures of the 1930s and ’40s. Screenwriters David and Stephen Koepp came up in that world, and it shows — even beyond the insider, city-desk wit of the dialogue, The Paper captures the exhilarating sound of a newsroom, the very feel of it all when deadlines are hitting (and passing). And then there’s the definitive Michael Keaton performance (not to mention the definitive Michael Keaton–losing-it-on-the-telephone scene).
The following year, Howard gave us Apollo 13, perhaps his crowning achievement, a film difficult to praise without giving way to a laundry list-ing of pitch-perfect performances: Tom Hanks as a portrait of intelligence and decency; Ed Harris impatiently but charismatically barking orders and almost crying tears of relief; Bill Paxton doing his folksy nice-guy thing; Kevin Bacon doing his cocky sexy thing, and so on. The acting is so stellar that it’s easy to overlook the real difficulty of what Howard, the director, was up to here: building genuine, often unbearable suspense from the dramatization of an event whose ultimate outcome is widely known. (That’s the same near-impossible feat that All the President’s Men pulls off so well.) Sustaining that tension without losing sight of the human drama that propels the story takes an extraordinary filmmaker.
Now, I must admit that the most recent of these three masterworks was released 25 years ago, and Howard’s ratio of good to bad work has shifted sharply in the years hence. This is the period that’s given us not only the aforementioned Hillbilly Elegy but the Dan Brown trilogy from hell (The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons, and Inferno) and Howard’s Jim Carrey-fronted How the Grinch Stole Christmas (which, on a sheer experiential level, may be one of the ugliest movies ever made).
But does this precipitous drop in quality make Howard a bad director overall — or just one who is prone to losing his touch, like no small number of his peers from the ’80s and ’90s? (Have you watched a recent Rob Reiner or Lawrence Kasdan movie? Good Christ.) Even before this fallow period, the frequent, sneering knocks on Howard’s skills as a filmmaker always felt a little unsubstantiated; his sin wasn’t that he was a poor director, just simply not a dazzling one. He didn’t whip the camera around or punch you in the face with his edits. He didn’t show off with long, unbroken takes or jaw-dropping special effects. He didn’t have an obvious stylistic signature; you rarely watched his work and thought, “Yep, that’s a Ron Howard movie” the way you did with Scorsese or Spielberg. Instead, as someone who observed the last gasps of the studio system as a child actor (he appeared alongside the likes of John Wayne and Yul Brenner), he’s an old-fashioned studio director: a gun for hire who can step into just about any genre and execute the work. (That’s why it made such shrugging sense when he took over Solo from the ousted Phil Lord and Christ Miller.)
Howard was never trying to be another Kubrick or Malick. He was trying to be another William Wyler or Howard Hawks. (The latter is a particularly apt corollary, and you can trace a fair number of one’s films to the other: The Paper is his His Girl Friday, Apollo 13 is his Only Angels Have Wings, etc.) Of course, the auteur-believers will tell us that even the hired guns were exercising an artistic voice, smuggling in a consistent set of thematic preoccupations and concerns. And to a degree, Howard continues that tradition. Throughout his best movies is a recurring leitmotif of hyper-competency, of smart people working at their peak mental and emotional capacity to solve problems. The Paper, Frost/Nixon, Ransom, and Backdraft would certainly fall into this category, and arguably Parenthood and Night Shift as well. Apollo 13 may well be the platonic ideal of it, Hillbilly Elegy an example of the subgenre’s limits. Hard work is a theme that makes his oeuvre personal, too; it’s what Howard himself so obviously demonstrates — regardless of the result — on every project he touches.
All of which is a long way of saying: yes, Ron Howard has fallen off, and yes, his latest is uniquely awful. But does the man who made Apollo 13, Parenthood, and The Paper get a lifetime pass, because three masterpieces is as many — or more — than many of your faves have been able to muster? How many legitimately, indisputably, stand-the-test-of-time great movies has Denis Villeneuve directed? Or Alejandro Iñárritu? Or (god help us) Zack Snyder? Honestly? The Hillbilly Elegy discourse will rage on this Thanksgiving, but let us focus our contempt in one place: the wig perched upon Amy Adams head. And keep Ron Howard’s career out of it.