The Goldfinch: Great Book, So-So Movie

The Goldfinch (2019)
Directed by John Crowley
Warner Brothers, 149 minutes, R (drug use, language)

Movies often borrow from books, but literature is a problematic source. Even a short novel has more room to develop plots, back stories, and detail. A 300-page novel will take an average reader more than eight hours to finish; most script writers and film directors get 90 minutes to two hours to bring the same story to the screen. So what does one do with Donna Taart’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Goldfinch, which checks in at nearly 800 pages? It doesn’t help that the book was polarizing; there were those—including me—who thought it riveting and others who and bailed before finishing.

If you see the phrase “Inspired by” at the beginning of a film, it usually means that liberties have been taken and that the book provides a seed from which the film blossomed; if it says “Adapted from,” most directors seek to be as faithful as they can to the printed word and excise as little as possible. Director John Crowley and script writer Peter Straughan opted for an adaptation of The Goldfinch. In retrospect, a reimagining might have been wiser. The Goldfinch was a major box office bomb last year. It’s not the turkey some critics considered it to be, but it is uneven. It’s worth a watch if: (a) you have actually read (and liked) the novel and (b) if you don’t expect a masterpiece.

The story unfolds when 13-year-old Theo Decker (Oakes Fegley) has dawdled and his flaky-but-chilly mother, Audrey, must walk him to his private school. They detour to the Metropolitan Museum of Art so that she can show Theo a painting. Theo is more interested in a girl he spies and decides to hang out near the gift shop while Audrey goes off to view another painting. Suddenly a terrorist bomb explodes and scores are killed, including Audrey and a man named Welty, who expires just as he places his partner’s business card into Theo’s palm. Amidst the rubble, dust, cacophony, and mayhem, Theo impulsively absconds with the picture Audrey wanted him to see: The Goldfinch, a 1654 painting from Carel Fabritus (1622-54), a Rembrandt student who was killed when a gunpowder magazine blew up in the Dutch city of Delft. (Taart did not invent Fabritus, the painting, or the explosion in Delft.)

This is merely the start of Theo’s journey. He is temporarily placed with the Barbour family: Chance, his moody socialite wife Samantha (Nicole Kidman), and their three children: Kitsey, Platt, and the geeky Andy, to whom Theo is kind though Andy is really annoying. Just when it looks as if Theo is about to be orphaned, his father Larry (Luke Wilson) appears to take him to Phoenix. Larry is every bit the small con man/big-time loser Theo’s mom said he was, and neither he nor his waitress girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson) has an ounce of couth or a clue on how to raise a kid. Theo is cast adrift in a desert wasteland—a housing development that went bankrupt before completion. He is out of place in a public school and friendless, until he meets Boris (Finn Wolfhard), who might be either Russian, Ukrainian, or Hungarian—his tale changes. The two do what you might expect feral children to do: smoke, drink, do drugs, and commit petty larceny. Larry is a compulsive gambler so desperate for money that he tries to bilk Theo out of his trust fund and it’s implied that Boris’ father is a mobster. Theo and Boris plan to runaway to New York, but Boris gets cold feet and Theo sets off on his own.

Here is where Crowley makes a big decision and perhaps not a wise one. He has already pared to the bone Theo’s relationship with Welty’s business sidekick Hobie (Jeffrey Wright) and Pippa, the girl from the museum over whom Hobie has guardianship and Theo’s unattainable flame. Likewise, Theo’s friendship with Andy is glossed. Instead of continuing to telescope, Crowley chops. We next meet Theo as a young adult helping Hobie with his antiques and restoration shop in the Village. Somehow­—the novel explains it—Theo has been to college and looks and acts the part of a young entrepreneur. He still pines for Pippa, but is engaged to Kitsey Barbour and adored by her entire family. There’s nothing like a Boris sighting to stir the pot. What about the painting, you wonder? Yeah, there’s that and much more to resolve. By then, The Goldfinch is already working overtime.

It doesn’t help that the young actors portraying Theo and Boris are way more compelling than the adults who assume those roles (Ansel Elgort and Aneurin Barnard). There is also a jarring tonal shift: from character development to caper film. What the movie does best is raise questions about how much ugliness a life can endure before it corrupts the soul, but is a truncated adaptation needed to accomplish this?  One of the better reviews of The Goldfinch summed up the film nicely. If you’ve read the book, the movie will be eye candy; if you’ve not, you’ll probably be lost. Its best gift is to remind you why Donna Taart won the Pulitzer.

Rob Weir    

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