Ansel Elgort plays the bombing victim Theo who becomes a druggie in adulthood. Photograph from Warner Bros. Pictures
Culture Movies

Review: ‘The Goldfinch’ is an oddly bland take on the Pulitzer-winning book

The screenplay tries to wrestle this behemoth into a neat linear structure—but doesn’t really succeed.
Andrew Paredes | Sep 27 2019

Directed by John Crowley

Starring Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman, Jeffrey Wright

Not to sound like a literary snob, but I am a fan of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. The 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is a spellbinding hybrid of high and low fiction; it’s one of those novels that contemplate Big Themes but whose plots also chug along relentlessly. An adolescent named Theo Decker (the heartbreaking Oakes Fegley) loses his mother (Hailey Wist) in a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and this single traumatic event launches him into a Dickensian life: First as a ward of the privileged but vaguely dysfunctional Upper East Side family the Barbours, led by the reserved matriarch Samantha (Nicole Kidman). Then he is dragged off to a housing development in the outskirts of Las Vegas by his shifty father Larry (Luke Wilson) and his new wife Xandra (Sarah Paulson), where he is initiated into the escapism of drug use by the Ukrainian teenage wastoid Boris (Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard). Theo then flees back to Manhattan to seek refuge with the kindly antiques restorer Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), who takes him in as an apprentice and eventually raises him to become the adult Theo (Ansel Elgort), a charming druggie who offloads the shop’s fake antique furniture.

The brilliant Jeffrey Wright as Hobie, the kindly antiques restorer, with Oakes Fegley, the younger Theo.

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Tartt has an alchemical ability to keep transporting and immersing you into new worlds, often from one chapter to the next but also sometimes from one page to another. She is capable of mesmerizing you with minutiae—for example, the intoxicating details of “the pore and luster of different woods, their colors, the ripple and gloss of tiger maple and the frothed grain of burled walnut”—but never letting the engine of her narrative sputter. The novel gains forward momentum from a pivotal moment which also gives it its title: In the disorienting hush after the explosion, young Theo wanders in the rubble and finds Hobie’s dying business partner Welty (Robert Joy), who pushes him to take Carel Fabritius’ 1654 masterpiece The Goldfinch and keep it safe. And thus the stolen artwork exerts its influence over Theo’s life, like a black hole warping the light of a nearby star, dense with beauty and history and value and sorrow, gnawing at Theo with guilt and terror and distorting his relationships with the red-headed Pippa (Ashleigh Cummings), a fellow victim of the Met bombing, and the flighty Kitsey Barbour (Willa Fitzgerald), with whom he enters into a half-hearted engagement years into his return to New York.

Elgort with Kidman who plays the reserved matriarch Samantha.

Am I a fan of John Crowley’s adaptation of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch? Not so much. The screenplay by Peter Straughan stubbornly tries to wrestle this behemoth into a neat linear structure. The result is an oddly bland production that contains all the episodes in Tartt’s novel, yet so distilled of their flavor as to render them generic: Gone are the paranoia of post-9/11 New York, the sun-bleached wasteland of pre-financial crisis Las Vegas, the magical hermeticism and grifter thrill of a small antique shop that sells knockoffs, the subtle tawdriness of Amsterdam’s criminal underworld. So preoccupied is the movie with hitting one required beat after another that it fails to land its emotional punches.

Owen Wilson (here with Sarah Paulson) plays Theo's shifty father Larry.  

Oddly, the film leans into the most implausible aspect of Tartt’s novel: the theft itself, an improbable turn that Tartt works mightily to sell, but which the film lingers over for dramatic effect without the heft of the novelist’s psychological insight. In many ways, The Goldfinch reminded me of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, another story of New York tragedy whose emotional sprawl got tamped down into a three-act structure once adapted for film.

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It’s a pity, because The Goldfinch is populated by impeccably-cast actors who are game. Those who acquit themselves well are Nicole Kidman, brittle yet vulnerable as the surrogate mother who could have given Theo a shot at a normal life, and Jeffrey Wright, playing the story’s steadfast yet ironically situated moral compass. (Also watch out for Denis O’Hare, who gives the movie a necessary jolt of adrenaline in two scenes as a connoisseur who blackmails Theo.) It’s also a shame, given how Crowley was given enough latitude to laze in pastoral Ireland and the immigrant boom of 1950s New York to produce his affecting Oscar-winner Brooklyn. Could The Goldfinch have been better served as a two-parter from HBO? Could a multi-episode offering from Netflix have better captured Tartt’s ideas about life’s patterns masquerading as glorious chaos? Perhaps. But as it stands, this Goldfinch doesn’t fly.

 

Photographs from Warner Bros. Pictures