Home » Years » 2019 » The Goldfinch •••1/2

The Goldfinch •••1/2

Starring: Oakes Fegley, Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman
Director: John Crowley
Screenplay: Peter Straughan, Donna Tartt
Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 149 minutes
Release Date: September 13, 2019




Scott, are you ready to review a movie based on a 1,000-page book?

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Ouch, that made me flinch. Perhaps it was a Goldflinch. Let’s recap.

We’re introduced to young Theo Decker (Oakes Fegley) being invited to join Mrs. Barbour’s (Nicole Kidman) family. He’s recently orphaned due to his mother being killed during a terrorist bombing at a museum they were visiting. Unknown to everyone, Theo (at the behest of an old dying man) took a small, famous painting of a goldfinch which he is keeping to himself.

Theo grows fond of the Barbours and wants to stay with them permanently, but out of the blue appears his deadbeat dad Larry Luke Wilson) and his girlfriend. They take Theo to Las Vegas where they live a dysfunctional life of crime and drugs. While in Vegas, Theo meets a Ukrainian teen named Boris (Finn Wolfhard), who introduces Theo to drugs and alcohol. Eventually, Theo’s dad is killed and Theo (now and adult: Ansel Elgort) runs away to live in New York with Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), the business partner of the man Theo met after the bomb explosion.

Scott, I was anticipating this film with both trepidation and high expectations because I had read The Goldfinch Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Donna Tartt – and hated it. The book weighs in at nearly 1,000 pages (about 300,000 words) and is about as dry and plodding as a book can be. It defies all the elements of good storytelling (including telling and not showing, a first-person protagonist threatening suicide, and a secondary character saving the day). I was eager to see if the movie improved upon the original – and it did… but not enough.

Now, we’ve often lamented that biographies are difficult to turn into movies because you can’t cram all of a person’s life into 120 minutes. I had the same concern here. So, given the length of the book, I forgave the filmmakers’ 150-minute running time. Peter Straughan successfully trimmed away the fat, rearranged the story (so that it was not so linear), and delivered a script that made sense and did a fair job of telling a story of interior angst with exterior dialog.

The performances are just stellar. Young Fegley is a perfect doppelganger of Angus Elgort as a child. Both actors deliver as Theo – a troubled young man. Nicole Kidman delivers a wonderful depiction of the suffering upscale housewife. However, in the book, Mrs. Barbour seemed burdened by Theo during the first half of the story. The direction and cinematography are also superb and I believe I hear Oscar murmurings in the background.

However, the basic story and all its flaws have not been corrected. There is no doubt that Theo is hanging on to The Goldfinch painting because it’s his mother’s soul. That’s fine. But scene after scene is exposition by some secondary character relating what’s happened off-screen. The worst case in point is Theo’s moment of crisis near the end.

In the book, Theo is threatening to kill himself with a gun. Now, consider this: this is a first-person narrative. How can someone narrate a story if he’s dead. So, we KNOW he’s not going to kill himself. So there’s no drama here. (In the movie he’s taking pills – which actually plays a bit better). His best friend Boris (who is brilliantly played by Stranger Things Finn Wolfhard) rushes and saves Theo. THEN, Boris goes into a long exposition of how he convinced the Feds to raid the bad guy’s home and save The Goldfinch and rescue a large number of stolen rare paintings.

This is something you never do in a good story. You don’t have a secondary character save the day – the hero must. You don’t have someone TELL the climactic end of the story – you SHOW the climactic end of the story. How this book won a Pulitzer Prize is beyond me.

Greg, I never read the book, but I can say that The Goldfinch is an ambitious movie with many threads that take their time weaving a full tapestry. This is a long movie with many slow-moving parts, and as such it requires patience and an appreciation for character development. I admired this film’s ambition and commitment to a measured and thoughtful unfolding of its storyline, but I also know that for such a slow buildup to work there has to be a great payoff at the end. I’m not convinced we get such a payoff.

Perhaps this film’s strongest asset is its assortment of unforgettable characters. Many of these people are stuck to my mind like Velcro. Both young and old Theo are terrific, especially young Theo who is a tortured soul. He meets another tortured soul in Boris, another unforgettable character who corrupts Theo yet also has a strong honorable streak in him. Nicole Kidman’s character of Mrs. Barbour is also fabulous; I don’t recall Kidman ever demonstrating such facial and emotional expressiveness. Theo’s mentor, Hobie, also stands out, as do young Theo’s friends Andy and Pippa. Overall it’s a striking cast that deserves huge kudos for adding depth and heft to the story.

So we have great characters, a long story arc involving loss, heartache, intrigue, and family dysfunction, and a compelling mystery about how a painting of a bird can have such a storied history and exert such an impact on a young boy. But how the story wraps up is anti-climactic to say the least. Boris and Theo are looking back at their lives, with all the ups and downs they’ve experienced, and Boris flippantly concludes with, “I guess that’s life.” I suppose we could leap beyond this trite idea to infer from the story that human free will is limited and that the chained goldfinch represents all the ways we are entrapped or imprisoned in our lives. Still, the ending didn’t convey much wisdom, and the full tapestry that I referred to earlier ends up being a cheap sweater with a few glaring holes in it.

The Goldfinch is a mercifully short version of the original (one minute of screentime for every 7 pages of the novel) that was enjoyable despite the many flaws we’ve cited. It is expertly crafted in every way: screenplay, acting, direction, and cinematography. It even improved the plot and ending as much as it could and stay true to the original. And therein lies the problem: The Goldfinch as imagined by Donna Tartt is just not a great story. While it was masterfully recreated for the big screen, it is still as boring and anti-climactic as the original. I give this film a hearty 4 Reels out of 5 for all the great artistry that went into the filmmaking – taking off one Reel for a really pointless story.

The troubled hero Theo goes through life and has a number of great mentors: Mrs. Barbour, Hobie, Boris, and even Pippa. It’s a complicated coming of age story. I’m most enamored of Hobie (played by Jeffrey Wright of Westworld fame). He teaches Theo an appreciation for whats old versus what’s new, and what’s real and authentic versus what’s fake or even a reproduction. I give these heroic characters and mentors 5 out of 5 Heroes.

The message, sadly, is delivered with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Theo wasn’t protecting the painting, it represented his mother’s love. Hobie delivers the message when he explains that The Goldfinch (the painting) survived an explosion that killed its creator. And has been passed from person to person, avoiding destruction, for 400 years. The idea here is that what we leave behind will outlive us all. (I was reminded of Belloq from Raiders of the Lost Ark when he said: “Indiana… we are simply passing through history. This… [gestures to the Ark] This is history.) I give this message 3 out of 5 Message points.

Movie: Message: Heroes:

Greg, The Goldfinch is a difficult movie for me to assign a final rating. There is much to like here, such as the long, intriguing story arc and the array of unforgettable characters. But the vast scope of this film is too much for one movie to handle adequately. This story seems better suited for a mini-series or perhaps two shorter films that can better capture the enormous range of time and space in the story. I enjoyed The Goldfinch but the disappointing message at film’s end left me less than fully satisfied. I give it 3 Reels out of 5.

Our hero Theo is an extremely complex and damaged character worthy of the remarkable journey he traverses here. He encounters a cast of characters who both help and hinder him, and he does grow and evolve thanks to Hobie, Mrs. Barbour, and Boris. Theo is one of the most fascinating heroes in the movies in 2019 and for that reason I have no problem giving him 5 Hero points out of 5.

The messages here are both clear and hazy. The clear ones involve messages of hope and resilience; the lesson of the tragedy of addiction and family dysfunction; and the importance of being emotionally and behaviorally honest in relationships. The hazy lesson is Boris’s pronouncement that life is hard and that maybe we don’t have as much control over our destinies as we think. As mentioned earlier, I felt shortchanged by this bit of “wisdom”. But I did enjoy Hobie’s implied message that transformed human beings are like authentic antique furniture – irregular, smoothed, shining, and the real deal. None of us are reproductions. I give these messages 3 Message points out of 5.

Movie: Message: Heroes:

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