The Goldfinch and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros. Pictures
Directed by John Crowley
So based on the trailers, this has to do with a heist gone wrong to steal a painting? Or maybe the kid knocked it off the wall which triggered a series of Rube Goldberg zaniness that led to the museum exploding? Okay, it’s probably not going to be THAT wacky considering the solemnity with which the trailers show the main character struggling with his guilt for… something, but apparently this is based on a book and I haven’t read it yet. Thankfully BASED ON THE BEST SELLING NOVEL doesn’t send a chill of dread down my spine the same way BASED ON A TRUE STORY does since a book is already supposed to have a beginning, middle, and end unlike someone’s life normally does, but I might be a bit out of my depth here because I hadn’t even HEARD of the freaking thing before the trailers started to come out and it clearly looks to be pure Oscar Bait, but I’ve seen enough of these kind of movies by now to hopefully tell a good one from a bad one. Then again, I was bored senseless in The Phantom Thread, so maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about in the first place. Is this the kind of awards contender that’ll appeal to all audiences instead of the very few who will be voting on said awards this year, or is all the pretense simply there to prop up a mediocre slog? Let’s find out!!
Theo Decker (Ansel Elgort and Oakes Fegley) hasn’t had the best like in his short thirteen years so far. He got blamed for smoking at school, his dad left his mom several months ago, and oh yeah his mother died in some sort of terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He manages to survive somehow, but with nowhere else to go he ends up living with a school friend’s family which is led by the regal Samantha Barbour (Nicole Kidman) who seems sympathy towards Theo but not much more than that. He eventually finds someone to open up to about the incident when he finds the partner of a man who died in the explosion along with the man’s granddaughter Pippa (Ashleigh Cummings and Aimee Laurence) who DID survive the explosion but suffered some serious trauma because of it. Theo and his new friend Hobie (Jeffrey Wright) do manage to lean on each other somewhat to deal with their grief, but at some point Theo’s crappy dad Larry (Luke Wilson) comes back to take him away to Arizona with his younger girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson) where he meets a kid named Boris (Aneurin Barnard and Finn Wolfhard) who he soon becomes friends with as well. The movie goes between flashbacks to his childhood and the life he has today which seems to be rather miserable and it becomes clearer and clearer why as we learn more about his past; the continued trauma he had to go through even after his mother’s death as well as the brief moments of joy he managed to find despite his lousy circumstances. Oh, and there was this painting that Theo took from the museum for some reason after the explosion, but I’m sure that’s not too important. It had a bird on it I think. Will Theo find peace in his life after having to suffer so much? Is there anything in his fractured past that will hold the answer to him coming to terms with what happened to him and maybe some serendipitous turn of events will finally bring him the closure he needs? Seriously, what does he need that bird picture for in the first place? I mean it’s fine, but it’s no Rembrandt or Jim Davis.
It’s alright I guess, though I get the sense that this was made for an audience that I am decidedly not a part of, namely those who read the book. Not so much that the film does a poor job of adapting the narrative as I was certainly able to follow it well enough, but it has the pacing and structure that pairs better with copious internal monologues and thirty or so hours to tell it. I don’t know, I guess some books work better written down on the page than crammed into an overlong movie, but even with that I found quite a bit to enjoy in here. Maybe not enough to live up to the fact that it’s based on a PULITZER PRIZE WINING BOOK (a detail so important that someone made sure to tell me that as they were leaving the theater) but decent enough to kill an otherwise uneventful afternoon.
I’ll give this movie credit for a quite a few things; primarily the performances which are solid across the board and Roger Deakins’s cinematography which is very good if not particularly flashy. I also genuinely had no idea where the movie was going, so the narrative did keep me engaged quite a bit even if what was going on wasn’t THE MOST interesting thing ever. The first half of this movie definitely suffers from that more than the second half and I’ll be honest, I couldn’t relate to ANY of these people for the first half hour or so. It was just a bunch of waspy folks with no idea how to deal with anything going on in their lives and our main character Theo takes so long to open up that I was having trouble investing in his plight. Seriously, what middle schooler wears a DRESS SHIRT to breakfast!? I couldn’t find one in my wardrobe with spelunking equipment under my pile of graphic tees and zipper hoodies! Perhaps I’m just too far removed from their world, but they seem almost alien with the way they carry themselves with such quiet dignity and don’t seem to have a TV, a computer, or even cell phones in the house despite this couldn’t have taken place any later than 2008 due to some heavy handed but ultimately meaningless allusions to the housing crisis. I couldn’t even tell you WHY their rich as the only thing I could get a grasp on is that the dad likes boats and the mom likes paintings. It isn’t until Jeffrey Wright enters the picture that the movie gets a bit of color in its cheeks and I’ll even say that there are SOME interesting things going on with the Barbour family (I like how Nicole Kidman had a very clear line of affection she would not cross and how her husband barely seemed to be aware of what’s going on), but for quite a bit of this movie it feels like we’re getting a lot of bread crumbs instead of something we can really sink our teeth into; just enough to keep from writing it off completely, but always feeling a bit disappointed that there’s not more going on.
Once Theo is taken away from the city due to unfortunate circumstances at the start of the second act, it does manage to pick up quite a bit as the film indulges in straight up melodrama and excess which is a tone and a setup that I can more easily relate to over the solemn dignified mourning that took up so much of the first act. I mean I guess you could argue that drugs and home drama are shallow indulgences to quite reflections on death and trauma, but I’m the one sitting in the theater watching both pieces back to back and there’s no question which one I felt was more fulfilling and gave this movie a few bumps in my overall estimation of it. This is however where the movie kind of craters for a bit on its narrative as the first act felt like it was setting up things to pay off later while the second act doesn’t seem to be about much other than vignettes about this kid’s childhood. Entertaining vignettes to be sure, especially with Luke Wilson being an absolute scumbag of a loser father, but it feels more like an extended stay at a rest area than a genuine stop on the journey; especially since everything just kind of resets back to the big city once it’s all done. The one exception here though is Finn Wolfhard who just shows up practically in a Halloween costume with a ridiculous Russian accent to match and he’s one of the best things about the movie. Yes it’s so over the top as to be laughable, but in a movie that felt so stifling for the first third of it, it was a welcome change of pace as he basically turns this into the non-clown segments of IT for a good chunk of the run time.
The adult segments, which take up the entirety of the third act and are also peppered the first two, is where things start to get weird. It’s not BORING per se which puts it above the mostly tedious first act, but it goes in some unexpected and straight up RIDICULOUS directions; especially once it turn into Nation Treasure for like five minutes. However, this is also where I have my biggest problem with the movie which is the painting itself. Maybe this is proof that I am nothing more than an uncultured swine, but I couldn’t care even the TINIEST bit about the painting itself. And look, I’m all about preserving art and remembering our history, but the actual ink and canvas that the original is on is ultimately immaterial to me within the context of the story being told. It’s not some lost artistic work as far as I’m concerned since people have copies of it and we know the history behind it; especially when people keep putting up pictures of the painting in newspapers to confirm that it is indeed still lost. It doesn’t even have secret map to buried treasure on the back of it! The emotional impact it imparts, the analysis and meanings that can be gleamed from it, none of that is affected by the original piece being missing. All that is lost is a single commodity that some rich fuddy-duddy doesn’t have access to anymore, and if we DID have some sort of all-encompassing global communications meltdown that eradicated all digital copies of it from the internet, I think we’d have bigger things to worry about in that moment than one picture of a bird which by all accounts MIGHT AS WELL be lost for good considering what happened to it in the first place! I’d understand if it was just Theo who was completely wrecked over it since it’s clearly supposed to be displaced guilt for his mother’s death, but anyone else giving him grief? Nuh-uh. Shut the heck up and sit the heck down with all that!
I mentioned IT at one point in this review and that feels like the most appropriate comparison point despite the film’s lack of monsters and clowns. It’s ultimately a story about a kid growing up and the hardships he has to endure that bleed into his adult life in bizarre yet still oddly compelling ways, and it also feels like its five hours long at points even if it’s only two and a half. I don’t know how much I’d REALLY recommend it, but I seem to have liked it more than a lot of other people if Rotten Tomatoes is anything to go by as I didn’t really dislike it at any particular point, but it does drag in places which makes it an exhausting sit in the theater. Wait for it to get a home release so you can at least take breaks or do something else when the boring stuff starts to happen which I know doesn’t SOUND like a ringing endorsement, but I had enough fun with this despite its failings and think other people will like it to. With the darn thing being based on a Pulitzer Prize winning book and getting a jump start on the other prestige films it feels like it’s got aspirations for true greatness that it never really achieves, but if it sets its sights low enough to simply be an entertaining movie I think it earns a passing grade which is more than can be said for other failed Oscar hopefuls in recent years. Was anyone crying out for Collateral Beauty to win anything except a boat load of Razzies!? That could have been you, Mr. Goldfinch! Just be happy you’re not THAT!