A film review by Craig J. Koban September 22, 2019



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 GOLDFINCH:  \

(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 was over. 

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 it.   

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. 

There's something 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. 

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