THE GOLDFINCH ½
2019, R, 69 mins.
Ansel Elgort as Theodore Decker / Oakes Fegley as Young Theodore Decker / Aneurin Barnard as Boris Pavlikovsky / Finn Wolfhard as Young Boris Pavlikovsky / Sarah Paulson as Xandra / Luke Wilson as Larry Decker / Jeffrey Wright as James 'Hobie' Hobart / Nicole Kidman as Samantha Barbour / Ashleigh Cummings as Pippa / Willa Fitzgerald as Kitsey Barbour / Denis O'Hare as Lucius Reeve
Directed by John Crowley / Written by Peter Straughan, based on the novel by Donna Tartt
I experienced two
overwhelmingly positive feelings during my experience of screening THE
(1) The moment I
entered the cinema with hope and optimism before the film began and
(2) the moment I left the cinema when it
I pondered a lot
about this film on my car ride home, but the prevailing thought that came
to mind while watching - make that enduring - THE GOLDFINCH was
"Brotman's Law" (named after the famous Chicago movie exhibitor
Oscar Brotman): If nothing has happened by the end of the first reel,
nothing is going to happen.
This film commits
perhaps the hugest cinematic sin of being a watch checking bore.
It's shamefully boring, all the more shameful because it's
based on a Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name by Donna Tartt,
is directed by John Crawley (who made a film that I greatly admired in BROOKLYN
a few years back) and is adapted by screenwriter Peter Straughan (TINKER
TAILOR SOLDIER SPY). The core premise of the novel is intriguing in detailing how
one hellish day of personal tragedy sends a young boy on a slow downward
spiral into becoming a deeply troubled adult.
It's a potentially fascinating expose into how suffering from
unspeakable trauma can bring on misplaced feelings of guilt.
But it's the execution and handling of this juicy source material
that's so inexcusably flat footed and lethargic.
At just twenty minutes in I started to look at the cinema's exit
sign, which is not a good...well...sign.
For a drama that
opens with a literal bang of a terrorist bombing, the fact that THE
GOLDFINCH sputters inconsistently around for the next two and a half hours
is to its detriment. The
narrative focuses on a young boy named Theo (Oakes Fegley), who loses his
mother early on in the film after a vile terrorist attack on the New York
Metropolitan Museum of Art. Just
before the bombing Theo was studying and contemplating the 17th Century
painting "The Goldfinch" with his mother, but then when
explosions rock the installation and bodies start piling up everywhere, he
takes it upon himself to make two choices that will both have a drastic
impact on the rest of his life. Firstly, he takes a ring from a
dying man in the rubble and - at his last wish in life - delivers it to
his business partner in antiques dealer Hobie (Jeffrey Wright).
As for the other thing? He
cuts The Goldfinch painting from its frame and steals it to preserve it.
He's also ravaged by insane levels of remorse and guilt over his
mother's death, and spends a better part of the film trying to atone for
Early on he finds
himself staying with the family of a school friend.
The mother of this household, Mrs. Barbour (a wasted and stiff
mannered Nicole Kidman), starts to become fond of the emotionally wounded
boy and takes him in as her own. It's
also during this time when Theo locates and is befriended by Hobie, who
becomes a mentor to the lad. Theo
also manages to reconnect with a young girl from the museum that also
managed to miraculously survive in Pippa (Ashleigh Cummings).
Just when things begin to look like they're about to start heading
in the right direction for Theo, his drug, alcohol, and gambling addicted
estranged father shows up, Larry (a very cast against type Luke Wilson),
who has just arrived from Las Vegas with his blonde floozy of a girlfriend
Xandra (Sarah Paulson). Larry
pleads with Theo and Mrs. Barbour that he has gone straight and clean, so
she begrudgingly lets Theo into his care and he departs with his dad back
to live in Las Vegas, and very predictably Theo learns that his dad
certainly ain't living as clean as he claims.
One of the more
baffling creative decisions by the makers here is breaking up THE
GOLDFINCH into a fractured non-linear story, which jumps back and forth in
time and place (mostly awkwardly) between Theo's young and adult life (the
latter version being played by Ansel Elgort), who at this juncture seems
to be living a good and well off life as a respected antiques dealer in
New York. He's also about to
be married and looking to put his past horrors well behind him...but then
his past comes back to haunt him that threatens his future happiness.
There's nothing inherently wrong with a film employing a
chronologically disjointed nature, but THE GOLDFINCH never seems to make a
claim as to why it's required here in the first place versus a linear
approach. Jumbling up all of
these moments in Theo's life has the unintended effect of making the
film's already sluggish pacing feel all the more elephantine.
to be said about the inherent challenges of trying to compress a fairly
complex novel into a workable film, especially one that sees Theo - at
various points in his life - traverse between New York, Las Vegas, and
later even Amsterdam. Trying
to harness 800 pages worth of Tartt's literary world is indeed difficult,
but Crowley never makes THE GOLDFINCH's storytelling cohesive or coherent.
His film jumps back and forth in time so often and mostly without
fluidity that it has the negative consequence of feeling like it's rushing
through narrative particulars, which is paradoxical considering how
tediously long winded the film is on a level of forward momentum.
Some subplots and side characters are introduced, then dumped, then
re-introduced again, mostly to the confusion of viewers (Theo's multiple
love interests in the film come to mind) and Theo's damaged relationship
with his father is just sketched over in the broadest strokes.
It became monumentally difficult for me to care about anything that
happened to these characters over the course of the film.
I can respect and
understand why Crowley felt the need to make a two and a half hour film
out of a massive source novel, but THE GOLDFINCH represents another
example in a newly growing list of recent films that aren't improved in
the slightest by a self-indulgent and undisciplined running time.
Nothing is balanced or juxtaposed correctly throughout the course
of this film, leaving everything feeling so dramatically sterile and
disinteresting. And we really should care for Theo's odyssey, seeing as he's
a long suffering protagonist that's burdened with his mother's death and
essentially possesses a priceless work of art for a better part of a
lifetime. But it's so hard to
give a damn about Theo and his multiple plights because Crawley rarely
digs deep under the superficial surface to paint these characters with any
psychological and relatable weight. By
the time the film laboriously crawls to its climax that builds towards a
gun standoff and the future of that damn painting it's perhaps the only
point in the story that it develops a pulse of intrigue, leaving it too
little too late.
There are just a
couple of things for me that made THE GOLDFINCH almost rise above being a
complete write-off as a shamelessly obvious piece of fall movie season
Oscar bait: It's shot beautifully by industry veteran Roger Deakins, who
makes the proceedings look (pardon the expression) painterly amidst a seas
of scripting dullness. I also
liked the chemistry of the always refined Jeffrey Wright and young Oakes
Fegley, the latter who makes a far more layered and intriguing Theo than
the posturing and one note Ansel Elgort does as his adult doppelganger.
But so much of the rest of the cast disappoints, like the
aforementioned Kidman (who seems like she's sleepwalking through her
role), or Luke Wilson's fairly unconvincing attempt to play an abusive
father. Perhaps most
distracting is STRANGER THING'S Finn Wolfhard's portrayal of Theo's
boyhood Ukrainian immigrant friend Boris, done with such a shoddy and over
the top accent that it drains all of the coming of age scenes he occupies
of any potency.
THE GOLDFINCH reminded me of COLLATERAL BEAUTY, not in the sense that it's just as inexcusably wretched, but rather in the manner that both are positioned as star studded and would-be high pedigree dramas that are desperately vying for Academy nomination glory. Considering the talent on board in front of and behind the camera and that it's based on a critically adored and award winning novel, THE GOLDFINCH really has no business being so dramatically lifeless and soulless. It's a failure as a coming of age drama, as an art world crime thriller, and as an adaptation. If you want the cure to insomnia, then give this a watch.