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The Goldfinch Review

September 14, 2019 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
The Goldfinch
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The Goldfinch Review  

Directed By: John Crowley
Written By: Peter Straughan; Based on the book by Donna Tartt
Runtime: 149 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated R

Ansel Elgort – Theodore Decker
Oakes Fegley – Young Theodore
Nicole Kidman – Mrs. Barbour
Jeffrey Wright – Hobie
Ashleigh Cummings – Pippa
Willa Fitzgerald – Kitsey Barbour
Aneurin Barnard – Boris Pavlikovsky
Finn Wolfhard – Young Boris
Ryan Foust – Andy Barbour
Luke Wilson – Larry Decker
Sarah Paulson – Xandra
Boyd Gaines – Mr. Barbour
Hailey Wist – Audrey Decker

Brooklyn filmmaker John Crowley’s latest dramatic offering, The Goldfinch, arrives this month, courtesy of Warner Bros. While the film boasts an able, impressive cast and some admittedly high quality cinematic visuals from cinematographer Roger Deakins, it amounts to little but a disjointed, overly long, dull, highfalutin experience.

The Goldfinch follows the young Theodore Decker (Fegley), who loses his mother in a terrorist attack while visiting The Met. Somewhere in the chaos of the tragedy, Theo gained possession of a priceless painting from the museum, the eponymous “The Goldfinch” by Carel Fabritius, and kept it concealed. With his father out of the picture and his mother deceased, Theo is taken in by a high-society family, the Barbours. Theo is mainly cared for by the warm matriarch Mrs. Barbour (Kidman), who unwittingly puts Theo on the path to drug addiction.

After a while, Theo begins to adjust to life with the Barbours, making friends with middle child Andy (Foust). Theo also connects with the antique salesman, Hobie Hobart (Wright), the business partner of another victim Theo encountered during the attack. He is also inspired by Pippa, a young girl and aspiring musician around Theo’s age a was injured by the explosion. Unfortunately, Theo is soon removed from his affluent environment when his deadbeat father Larry (Wilson) returns to obtain custody of his son.

Poor Theo is then thrust into a miserable existence, coping in a desolate desert neighborhood outside Las Vegas with his abusive, alcoholic, compulsive gambler father and his girlfriend, Xandra (Paulson), with an X. Theo’s one lifeline is his new Ukrainian classmate, Boris (Wolfhard), who introduces him to the wonders of getting high.

Eventually, the narrative progresses to an adult Theodore (Elgort), who grew up to become business partners with Hobie and reconnects with his previous foster family, the Barbours. Unfortunately, Theo’s drug addiction worsens, and his long-held secret of his purloined painting comes dangerously close to becoming revealed.

Adapted from an award-winning book and boasting a cast of some esteemed talent, such as Academy Award winner Nicole Kidman, The Goldfinch is definitely ambitious in presenting a cinematic version of Haute Cuisine. And while some of the ingredients are certainly there, the execution is not. The Goldfinch is a movie with grandiose goals, but its attempts at an emotional edge fall incredibly flat.

Crowley and writer Peter Straughan adapt an unconventional, anti-linear narrative for The Goldfinch, but it’s the epitome of cinematic indulgence. Perhaps some of the flaws are inherent to the novel, but the narrative is disjointed, switching between Theo’s adulthood, his youth with the Barbours and then his time with his father. In the second half, a narratively disingenuous subplot involving the revelation of Theo’s theft coming to light, adds conflict and suspense. However, it’s utterly inconsequential, and later, unceremoniously ignored.

In fact, there’s a whole thriller element that comes into the movie rather late that’s executed in a very clumsy fashion. As a result, these disparate elements never really meld together to elevate the picture in a profound way, despite John Crowley’s lofty ambitions. Instead, The Goldfinch comes off as rather messy.

The Goldfinch is oddly reminiscent of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. While that might initially sound like a ridiculous comparison, the results are similar because they are both movies trying hard to be darkly serious and “artistic,” yet the final result feels empty. The story spends so much time with Theo, and his voice-over narration guides the audience; but he never transformers into a real character. Theo worships his mother, whom he tragically lost, but she never truly becomes a real character. She’s more or less the driving force behind Theo’s guilt. Theo’s guilt and misery living with his deadbeat father lead him to drug addiction. There’s a dark edge to the film’s depiction of early teen drug use, but it comes off more as a way to boast how dark and serious nature of the film, rather than an honest depiction of juvenile drug use leading to addiction as an adult.

To add to the film’s rather disparate style, the final act pays a great deal of lip service to the importance of classic artwork and paintings and why they exist. This moral messaging is clumsy, as it seemingly comes out of left field. For the entire movie, Crowley and Straughan have been telling another story about this young man’s personal tragedy and how that led him to a life of fraud and drug addiction. It sends a rather mixed message because based on the earlier half of the film, Theo hardly came off as some pre-meditated mastermind thief. He was probably concussed and in shock after a traumatic event. Nobody in that situation would be thinking straight and have their wits about them.

At one point, Crowley depicts young Theo in a fetal position, cradling and hugging the painting. Although the scene is unappealingly melodramatic, the presentation suggests that the painting is Theo’s security blanket and the last memento from his dead mother that he is desperately trying to hold onto. It doesn’t appear to have been a malicious theft.

The most appealing aspect of The Goldfinch is its cast, which consists of quite a few familiar faces, including underrated veterans Luke Wilson, Jeffrey Wright and Sarah Paulson. Ansel Elgort is a talented actor, but his performance here is lacking a real emotional core to latch onto. The characters engage in deep, verbose, long-winded monologues that sound dramatic, but lack weight. It’s like Crowley has made a film consisting of montage reels for award seasons. The deeply dramatic elements of teen drug use, abusive relationships, and star-crossed lovers who can’t be together are presented in the film. Crowley attempts to showcase them in a remarkable way, but they never come together as a cohesive whole. That said, the actors are clearly dedicated to the material.

The younger Theo, Oakes Fegley, tries hard with a very challenging role, dealing with some rather intense subject matter. However, Fegley and the younger version of Boris, Finn Wolfhard’s adoption of a goofy and thick Russian accent, are never truly convincing. For example, there’s a scene where Theo confronts the other kid who apparently got him in trouble with the principal, indirectly causing the tragic trip to the museum for Theo and his mother. Theo lashes out and almost poses in a way that’s reminiscent of UFC fighter “Iceman” Chuck Liddell. It’s rather awkward and weird. In addition, the subplot with the other kid never goes anywhere of note, much like numerous other subplots in the film.

Little can be said against the film’s exceptional cinematography by Roger Deakins. At the very least, the film is lensed beautifully and shot in a way that looks semi-abstract. At one point, it almost looks like a bird or Goldfinch is forming in the ground dust blown by the wind outside Theo’s miserable home in the Nevada desert.

The Goldfinch touches on grief and loss, and the guilt Theo experiences from surviving the traumatic experience. Despite most of the film being built around this, the movie ultimately settles with the message about the longevity of artwork. Is that really the important lesson Theo needed to learn? Perhaps Theo really needed to learn that he was a victim of a senseless and tragic event. It wasn’t his fault. He had nothing to do with it, and he’s manufacturing his own guilt.

The Goldfinch subjects the audience to two-and-a-half hours of a moral resolution that’s utterly unsatisfying. The drawn out final act comes off as a narrative con job that’s more elaborate than the one depicted late into the film.

The final score: review Bad
The 411
The Goldfinch is an aggressive attempt to create a deeply dramatic, thoughtful cinematic event. However, John Crowley's results come off as unappealing and melodramatic, rather than truly and deeply profound. The film boasts a strong cast and some exceptional cinematography. However, it's a movie that wants to present itself as deeply artistic that lacks a cohesive story and compelling, natural characters.