Hillbilly Happy Days: Lil’ Opie Lost in Appalachia

Still from Hillbilly Elegies. (Netflix).

Lil’ Opie is extremely upset that people are deriding his latest movie, HAPPY HILLBILLY DAYS. Only 26% of the 223 reviews on review aggregator ROTTEN TOMATOES are positive. METACRITIC (an aggregator that limits its input reviews to recognized critics) gives it an average rating of 39% (out of 100) for the 41 reviews.

The critics can be neatly divided into two groups. People who haven’t read the book upon which the movie is based, think Opie presented treacly nonsense, stick-figure characters, improbable events, clichéd dialogue and ridiculous behavior.

Critics who’ve read the book think Howard bowdlerized it, eliminating all the points the author was trying to make—leaving a tower of mush in his wake.

To make matters worse (for Opie), many of the negative reviews are not coming from disappointed fans of the book. A substantial percentage say “I didn’t like J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy”, but it deserved a better movie than this.”


J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” was published in June of 2016. It purports to be a memoir of the author’s childhood, but reads more like a polemic written by a right-wing elite, who grew up in poverty in Southern Ohio, was able to graduate from Yale—and became a vulture capitalist and low-rent Ayn Rand acolyte.

In the book, Vance blames his family (which hails from Breathitt County, Kentucky– a dirt-poor Appalachian region), and their values (or lack thereof) for their failure to advance, and offers non-stop scolding of his family’s beliefs and the culture that spawned it.

Because the book was published just as Donald Trump was nominated–and pundits credited Hillary Clinton’s loss to the Democratic Party’s failure to understand and reach out to the “white working class” (pollster term for anyone who doesn’t have a college degree)–Vance’s book acquired a stature it manifestly doesn’t deserve. I thought it was a steaming mound of disingenuous horseshit. It rang as phony as James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces”, which Frey originally billed as a memoir and ended up admitting was a novel based on incidents in his life.

The characters in Vance’s book strongly resemble the taxi drivers and waiters who populate the books written by NEO-TIMES foreign affairs columnist Tom Friedman about his travels. Both sets of people always seem to express the ideas that the author currently holds. Some appear to exist solely to illustrate the wisdom of his beliefs, by doing the opposite and having their lives blow up.

The smell of expired dollar store cheese dip pervades the book. Like Jerzy Kosinski’s “The Painted Bird”– another memoir that had to be redefined as a novel– people who know the region that the author claims to know about have attacked the book. The more generous say Vance extrapolated from far too small a base– that his family IS NOT representative of the majority of residents of the region. The rest simply don’t believe Vance is telling the truth.


SIDEBAR: If you want to read a book about poor members of Team R — how they live, what they think and why they act like they do– the one you need is “Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War”, which was published in 2007 by journalist Joe Bageant, to document his late-in-life return to bucolic Winchester, Virginia,

Bageant, who was born in 1946 and died in 2011, grew up on the West Virginia-Virginia border, living in dirt-poor towns in both states. He quit high school, joined the Navy, left the military and traveled the country doing odd jobs and day labor. In his late 20’s, he was seriously injured and spent the better part of a year in traction—where he did a lot of reading and began a career as a reporter and columnist.

The obituary in the COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW referred to Bageant as “a sort of Michael Moore character without the self-promotional gimmickry, remembering—perhaps romanticizing—a vanished world of hard, honest labor and damning the rise of an increasingly vulnerable underclass, numbering many tens of millions, among white, rural Americans and their displaced urban descendants.” It’s a fine description of the man and his work. Digesting his books (the second was called “Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir”), one gets notes of Jean Shepherd, Richard Louis Dugdale, Rudyard Kipling, Jim Thompson, Erskine Caldwell, Thomas Frank, Jack Kerouac, Hunter Thompson and Jean Genet.

Bageant is worth reading because he identifies and sympathizes with an underclass that he also fears and loathes. Bageant doesn’t claim they are either virtuous or blameless—in many respects, he finds their behavior and their opinions repellent. But Bageant also understands something that most of the people screaming about Trump voters do not:  Rednecks are the people the wealthy and elitist segments of the country have relied on to do the tasks that make their lives both possible and comfortable.

People who drill and mine, who raise crops, slaughter animals, dig ditches, cut trees for lumber, stock shelves, wait tables, prepare food, build roads and bridges and fight the wars are more important to this country than any Ph.D.s in Gender Studies. They’ve taken credit for being the foundation of the country, held their traditions close to their hearts and accepted what little society has given them.

The life situations of this underclass has changed very much for the worse since World War 2, and things are getting more terrible by the day. Their behavior over the last 25 years is very much a reaction to the destruction of the lifestyles they cherished and the feeling that they are considered dispensible by people whose lives they make possible.

In his essay on Kipling, George Orwell (another writer who sympathized with the lowest economic echelon) had this to say about the class divisions:

“A humanitarian is always a hypocrite, and Kipling’s understanding of this is perhaps the central secret of his power to create telling phrases. It would be difficult to hit off the one-eyed pacifism of the English in fewer words than in the phrase, ‘making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep’.

“It is true that Kipling does not understand the economic aspect of the relationship between the highbrow and the blimp. He does not see that the map is painted red chiefly in order that the coolie may be exploited. Instead of the coolie he sees the Indian Civil Servant; but even on that plane his grasp of function, of who protects whom, is very sound. He sees clearly that men can only be highly civilized while other men, inevitably less civilized, are there to guard and feed them.”

(Aaron Sorkin and Rob Reiner try to express this idea in A FEW GOOD MEN, but the temptation to turn Jack Nicholson into a comic-book villain and his valid point into misanthropy was too much for them.)

What we are seeing from Trump voters is the payment for the mockery.


In contrast to Bageant, J.D. Vance is NOT worth reading because he is a supercilious putz who measures a person entirely by the contents of their wallet. His bock mocks the people he came from; judging them and finding them wanting in all respects. “It’s OK to abuse these yokels—they’re barely human,” he as much as says.

But, appalling as Vance’s book is, he did write it. And if you decide to film the book—and to use the author’s title to help draw attention to your work—you owe it to the book, its author, the characters and the readers to present an accurate depiction of it. Obviously turning any book into a movie requires changes to make it filmable—but a film shouldn’t entirely eviscerate the original. Not in the days since the production code was vanquished.

(Or, if you’re going to do it, at least change the title. The film LUCAS BIRCH is based on John Irving’s novel “A Prayer for Owen Meany”; Alan Parker turned William Hjortsberg’s novel “Fallen Angel” into the film ANGEL HEART.)

But an overtly political work by a stridently opinionated author (whether right or wrong) is the last thing in the world that Little Opie Cunningham ever want to make. He made a comedy out of the relationship between prostitution and the city government that starred Shelley Long and Henry Winkler. He did a comedy about the US losing the auto industry to Japan starring Michael Keaton and Gedde Wantanabe where the Americans win.

Opie got a reputation as an artist for doing a movie I call THE NUTTY MATH PROFESSOR. That transformed an arrogant, selfish, violent, paranoid schizophrenic into a quirky genius who sometimes did silly things. When the real John Forbes Nash Jr. (who looked a lot more like Don Knotts than Russell Crowe) was hospitalized for one of his violent episodes, he conned a nurse into falling in love with him. He impregnated her—then abandoned her because he decided she wasn’t intelligent enough or socially advanced to deserve to be his wife. He didn’t acknowledge or support her—ever.

Nash was bisexual and singularly promiscuous. He slept with anyone who interested him and discarded them when they got old. His arrest for homosexual activity in a public park got him fired from his job with the RAND Corporation. Because he was brilliant—because he had defenders and enablers who ignored his flaws—he still managed to get a teaching job. He married a woman with a Ph.D. in physics from MIT and cheated on her constantly. When he repeatedly became violent, she had to commit him. He spent five years in and out of hospitals (he managed to get her pregnant as well), before she divorced him.

My brother is a schizophrenic. He was impressed by Sylvia Nasr’s biography of Nash, “A Beautiful Mind”, and detested Opie’s THE NUTTY MATH PROFESSOR. Billy used to be able to work himself into a sub-psychotic rage—getting angrier and angrier—as he cataloged all the errors in the depiction of mental illness in the book. (A psychiatrist friend also intensely dislikes the movie, although she makes her criticism less vehement.)

I’m not terribly fond of Dan Brown’s novel THE DA VINCI CODE as fiction. (I’ve read worse—Harold Robbins, Irving Wallace, Erich Segal, Jackie Collins.) Because I am a lapsed Catholic who detests organized religions of all stripe (note: not religion itself—the industries formed to capitalize on the faith of the believers), I don’t have a problem with Brown’s antipathy towards the Roman Catholic Church. And given some of the whoppers in the Bible and the teachings of various Popes, I’m certainly not going to get upset about Brown’s depiction of its history.

Making a movie of a book that is a direct assault on Catholicism—wrapped loosely in a thriller—without ever getting into the theology eliminates the reason to make the movie. It’s like suggesting that “The Fountainhead” is about a struggling young architect and the woman who loves him.

But Little Opie Cunningham turned Dan Brown’s book into a movie, without ever explaining what everyone was so upset about.

Opie did a movie about boxer James J. Braddock that whitewashed him—and demonized his opponent Max Baer. Both of his impressive setpieces (the making of the adapter and determining the correct reboot sequence) in APOLLO 13 are fictionalized; a lot of the rough edges are removed. Also notice: Opie never does get around to explaining what happened (which makes one glad that he didn’t make a mover about Challenger).

Opie did two movies about The Beatles that didn’t mention sex or drugs or corrupt businessmen. (His documentary about Pavarotti is arguably worse about that.) The root cause of all these mnisfires is that Little Opie Cunningham doesn’t have the testicular fortitude to grapple with any topic darker than puppies romping under a rainbow.

So, needless to say, he could never have turned a book about politics, poverty, drug addiction, class war and white rage into a movie. I’m not saying “Not a good one”—I’m saying “not at all.” Opie wouldn’t make that movie—he’d turn it into FORREST GUMP without all the celebrity encounters.

When I heard he was going to do Vance’s book, I giggled. I knew what we would get. And that is exactly what he did. So both the critics who agree with Vance and the ones who oppose him hate the movie. And rightly so.


Little Opie isn’t used to being savaged—and he’s upset. His response is a word salad that (assuming he really means this) demonstrates a lack of understanding that rivals Joe Biden:

“I do feel like [the critics are] looking at political thematics that they may or may not disagree with that, honestly, are not really reflected or are not front and center in this story.

“What I saw was a family drama that could be very relatable. Yes, culturally specific, and if you’re fascinated by that, I hope you find it interesting. If you’re from the region, I hope you find it authentic because certainly that was our aim and that was our effort. But I felt that it was a bridge to understanding that we’re more alike than we are different.”

And I feel that Lil’ Opie has his head up his ass. If that’s what he really thought the book was about, he’s a dipshit. I used to give Steven Spielberg a fair amount of grief for not making serious, substantive movies. But Spielberg was NEVER as lightweight and simplistic as Opie (OK, maybe 1941).

There is no reason that the two directors should be on such different levels of ability. Spielberg (born December 18, 1946) is only eight years older than Opie (March 1, 1954). Spielberg directed his first movie (DUEL, although he had done the 90-minute pilot for Columbo) in 1971, when he was 24… but Opie did GRAND THEFT AUTO (for Roger Corman) in 1977, at 23.

(Remember, Opie had been making movies and TV shows—building relationships and credit balances—since he was five, and decided that he wanted to direct in his teens.

But Spielberg—even if he did have comic-book sensibilities—had dreams of being an artist. (He snuck onto the Universal lot to talk to John Ford when he was just a kid. Ford gave him 30 seconds before throwing him out.) He understood that movies for adults dealt with death, crime, sex and drugs. His films always had villains, many of whom came to bad ends. His heroes were frequently flawed—and often ended up worse off than some of the bad people.

Spielberg’s first attempt to make a serious movie was THE COLOR PURPLE in 1985 (age 39). It didn’t really work (color palette uncomfortably like SONG OF THE SOUTH and it felt like FRIED GREEN TOMATOES, when it needed to be SOUNDER). EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987; age 41) wasn’t successful, either.

But the trio of movies Speilberg made consecutively between ages 47 and 52– SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993), AMISTAD (1997) and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998)—are all substantive works by a mature artist. Even if you have issues with the results (and I do), a conscientious critic needs to treat the films as serious work.

Spielberg makes historically dubious movies (MUNICH) and cringeworthy ones (THE TERMINAL), as well as movies from whole cloth (almost everything in CATCH ME IF YOU CAN was invented) and things that are just painful (READY PLAYER ONE). But most of those are worth watching, a lot of his films are good popcorn movies… and MINORITY REPORT is genuinely brilliant.


Opie never got a lot better than GRAND THEFT AUTO or COTTON CANDY (imagine a movie about a high school rock back where nobody cares about drinking or girls) or SKYWARD (Bette Davis wants to learn to fly; Howard Hesseman wants to build a plane), mostly because he never wanted anything bad to happen. Tempted as I might be to blame it on the years on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, Andy Taylor dealt with serious themes (except for the one he couldn’t do: race) and he tried to do it realistically. The actor could and did go dark. (If you haven’t seen his movie A FACE IN THE CROWD, where he works with Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan, go do that.)

I’d be tempted to blame the Richie Cunnigham era on HAPPY DAYS; Gary Marshall always made schlock. Yes, sometimes Marshall’s schlock was entertaining, but it was always processed. Except sometimes his movies dealt with darkness.

Nothing really bad ever happens in Little Opie Cunningham’s universe—even in the fantasy movies. (He did two movies where he worked with George Lucas properties: WILLOW and SOLO.) Which is why he hasn’t made anything I haven’t snickered at. PARENTHOOD the movie is significantly worse than the TV show—he absolutely refuses to let anything unpleasant occur. (THIS IS US comes off like Ingmar Bergman by comparison.)

Opie photographed a play (FROST/NIXON) that already had all its rough edges and difficult questions removed, so he was able to pull that off. SPLASH is good. COCOON is like a really sappy episode of TWILIGHT ZONE, but if you like that sort of thing, it succeeds. (Spielberg’s “Kick The Can” episode of the TWILIGHT ZONE movie is pretty bad, but it’s better than Opie’s bite at the apple.)

The book “Hillbilly Elegy” was WAAAYYYY out of Opie’s league… the reaction to it is almost heartwarming. Critics and viewers are channeling the very end of Michael Douglas’s speech in THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT: “This is a time for serious people, Bob, and your fifteen minutes are up.”

One would hope Opie would take the frigging hint.