Goldfinch, TheReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/11/19 17:39:29
I suppose I should begin this piece with a point of order—actually a point of mild embarrassment for the longest time—that I need to get off of my chest. I have to confess that I never read Donna Tartt’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Goldfinch.” Now this admission in itself may not be that astounding—there are many books out there that I have not read and the fact that I didn’t crack this one before it made it to the big screen is not that extraordinary (I was not exactly brushing up on the “Twilight” books before sitting through those films.) The reason that I am making any note of this at all is the fact that I have been planning to read it for years now but something has always kept me from doing so. This is unusual because I loved Tartt’s 1994 best-selling debut “The Secret History”—one of those rare books that turned out to be both a cultural phenomenon and a startlingly well-written work—and when “The Goldfinch” was published, i downloaded it onto my iPad with the full intention of getting to it before too long. And yet, despite the rave reviews it received in some (though famously not all) quarters and the Pulitzer and the best-seller status, something about it just seemed so oppressive and ponderously literary that every time I tried to get into it, I found myself putting it aside in favor of something else, though always with the intention of getting back to it one day and completing the task at hand.After seeing the film version of “The Goldfinch,” however, I have a feeling that I can easily remove that particular duty from my to-do list for the foreseeable future. It seems as if every award season now brings at least one highfalutin literary adaptation that enters the fray with as much pomp and prestige as possible, only to reveal itself as an utterly empty and staggeringly pretentious drag that has either done unfathomable harm to the source material or, more often than not, inadvertently revealed the essential hollowness at the center of their stories. There is a special section in Movie Hell filled with such misfires as “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” “The Shipping News,” “A Thousand Acres,” “The Lovely Bones” and “The Girl on the Train”—movies so terrible that you almost feel the need to see them a second time just to assure yourself that that they really were as bad as they seemed. Like those films, no amount of time, money or talent has evidently been spared to bring “The Goldfinch” to the screen. Despite those efforts, however, the end result is a hollow, manipulative and emotionally vapid work that proves to be as big of a bomb as the one that kicks off what passes for a storyline.
That bomb, planted by terrorists, rips through the galleries of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and kills a number of patrons, including the beloved mother of 13-year-old Theodore Decker (Oakes Fegley), who himself survived the blast and came away from the wreckage with both an inconsolable sense of loss and a massive secret. Just before the blast, Theo and his mother were looking at “The Goldfinch,” a small 1654 painting by Dutch artist Carel Fabritius that had miraculously survived the explosion that killed Fabritius centuries earlier. Amidst the rubble, Theo finds a dying man who points him to the still-intact painting on the ground and he impulsively elects to take it for himself as a way to remember his lost mother. With his sleazy father having taking off months ago and with no other relatives to speak of, Theo is taken in by the Barbours, a wealthy Park Avenue family whose youngest son is a classmate of his. There, he makes a special connection with Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman) and also befriends Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), the furniture restorer who was the business partner of the man he saw in the museum wreckage, and Pippa (Aimee Laurence), the young relative he was with and who also survived the blast.
Just when things seem to be going Theo’s way, it all goes to hell with the arrival of his dad (Luke Wilson), who turns up in town with his blowsy girlfriend Sandra (Sarah Paulson) just long enough to spirit him off to a nearly abandoned Las Vegas housing development (and if you think that the house is located on a dead-end street, you might have a future in clunky metaphors). Dad turns out to be a drunken gambler more interested in Theo’s possible inheritance than anything else and Theo spends most of his time hanging out with Boris (Finn Wolfhard), a wild Ukrainian delinquent who turns Theo on to booze, acid and snorting crushed-up Vicodin. After yet another tragedy, the film jumps forward a few years and finds the now-adult Theo (Ansel Elgort) now working as a furniture restorer alongside Hobie and reconnecting with Mrs. Barbour, even going so far as to become engaged to her daughter, Kitsey (Willa Fitgerald). Once again, Theo seems to have it all but it is soon revealed that his continued sense of guilt over what he feels is his responsibility for his mother’s death has led to a couple of additional dark secrets that are now in danger of coming out. Between the pressure brought on by his sense of shame and his unexpected reunions with the now-adult Pippa (Ashleigh Cummings) and Boris (Aneurin Barnard), he is finally compelled to try to set everything right at long last, no matter what the cost.
After watching “The Goldfinch,” I naturally assumed that this was yet another case of a great, if lengthy, book being chopped and channeled beyond recognition in a misguided attempt to make it work as a film. Therefore, I was a bit surprised to talk to a couple of people and read a couple of reviews that suggested that Peter Straughn’s screenplay more or less fit the narrative contours of Tartt’s book. If that is true, then the real question becomes one of wondering how it was possible that such a ludicrous and sub-Dickensian stew of thinly drawn characters, ludicrous plot developments (did I mention the part where Theo winds up in a shoot-out in Amsterdam?) and a reliance on coincidence that quickly becomes comical (according to this film, there are maybe 12 people living in Manhattan and every one of them recognizes Theo instantly even if they haven’t seen him in years), all of which are served up at a glacial pace (the film runs 2 1/2 hours and feels at least 16 times longer), could have possibly been revered by so many people in its print incarnation in the first place? Did the fact that it placed a genuine work of art at its center subliminally convince people that it too was worthy of high regard by its inclusion alone? If I had to guess, I would think that the story was always pretty ludicrous at its core but Tartt’s undeniable gifts as a writer—the thing that transformed “The Secret History” from a mere potboiler into something infinitely smarter and more elegant—recounted it in such a way that readers could be so dazzled by the prose stylings without ever quite noticing how ludicrous the whole enterprise was getting.
Alas, a strong authorial voice is perhaps the one thing that a movie adaptation cannot easily replicate and films that have failed to find a cinematic equivalent to it is pretty much doomed to failure. This is the key reason why so many great books have turned into mediocre-at-best movies—the words, at least metaphorically, may be there on the screen but not the music that is exclusively the province of the author. The trouble with “The Goldfinch” is not so much that Straughn and director John Crowley (his first film since the Oscar-nominated drama “Brooklyn”) has failed to find a cinematic voice to match Tartt’s literary one as it is the fact that they don’t even seem to have tried at any point to do so in the first place. The film replicates portions of the book but as handsomely as they have been mounted—this is at least an exceptionally good-looking terrible movie thanks to the contributions of cinematographer Roger Deakins—there is no juice or life to them. After a while, the film just feels like a jumble of events rather than a complex and finely drawn story and when the cliches and coincidences begin piling up in larger numbers as it goes on, it simply becomes ludicrous, especially during the points when it tries to jerk tears from viewers (especially in an awful scene in which the fates of a couple of the minor characters are revealed by having someone tell a story that is meant to be moving but comes across as inadvertently hilarious due to the way that it blatantly rips off a key chunk of that Holy Grail of White People Suffering films, “Ordinary People) without actually earning any of them.
Thanks presumably to the prestige of the book and the desire to work with Crowley after the success of “Brooklyn,” “The Goldfinch” has a pretty impressive cast but in most cases, they turn out to be badly served by the material. As the adult Theo, Ansel Elgort is basically a blank throughout to such a degree that it becomes virtually impossible to work up any degree of sympathy or interest for his character. (By comparison, Oakes Fegley is more effective as the young version of the character.) By comparison, Wolfhard, Wilson and Paulson push their characters to such cartoonish lengths that it begins to feel like a weird stab at a child’s fairy tale aimed strictly at adults—a notion that is far more interesting in theory than it is in practice as seen here. Jeffrey Wright has arguably the worst role of them all—the noble African-American who seems to have no life or work outside of offering noble bits of homespun wisdom—and it is through his sheer talent alone that keeps his character from being totally offensive and insufferable. As Mrs. Crowley, Nicole Kidman delivers the closest thing to a believable and nuanced performance and her scenes are among the best in the film—inevitably, the film repays her by contriving to keep her off the screen for far too long.“The Goldfinch” is handsomely mounted and comes across with such lofty airs that it might actually fool some viewers into thinking that it is far more profound and moving than it actual is. Presented with the kind of verse and energy usually seen in a book report delivered by a student who didn’t quite completely the reading and is hoping that no one noticed that he cribbed the rest from Wikipedia. It recounts elements but doesn’t seem to have any idea of how to shape them into something meaningful or interesting. By the time it ends, most viewers may find themselves feeling like young Theo emerging from the wreckage of the bomb—dazed, confused and not fully comprehending the horror that they have just endured. Normally when a movie based on a best-seller is turned into a film, it produces a simultaneous spike in book sales. “The Goldfinch,” on the other hand, is so dreadful that it may inspire a rapid rise in book returns instead.
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