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The Goldfinch

*1/2

by Matt Anderson

published September 12, 2019

The Goldfinch isn't Oscar bait. It's cat food.

Failure to Take Flight

All that pre-release Oscar chatter stems from the fact the 2013 source novel, written by Donna Tartt, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014. Maybe the missing pieces are in the book, which was written in a first-person narrative. Trouble is, while readers of the book might naturally gravitate to checking out the movie, the reverse is highly unlikely.

The story is supposed to play out as a two-fold mystery. For one, there's a young boy who blames himself for the death of his mother. Why? For another, the boy comes into possession of a painting, The Goldfinch, whose provenance and fate are put into question. Huh?

Unfortunately, neither mystery works here as the story devolves into a tedious flight through tragedy and amorality. There isn't a single character to care about. Well, maybe an antiques dealer named Hobie (Jeffrey Wright, HBO's Westworld). At least Wright's performance gives the movie a portion of its lowly 1 ½ stars. The balance comes from Roger Deakins' cinematography and the titular painting by Carel Fabritius.

The rest of this endeavor is one cold, slow affair that turns into a borderline laughable drama of ridiculous situations — all in service to a story that should have some punch. It should be about resilience. It should be about the motivational and inspirational power of art. It should be a life-affirming story about overcoming guilt and any number of other obstacles in the face of devastating loss. It should be about the interconnectedness of life.

But. No.

It's astonishing to see so much bad happen with zero emotional resonance. Zero.

How can that be? Let's break it down. From the very beginning.

The Anatomy Lesson

The movie is a rather impenetrable experience right from the start because there's no grounding force to set the baseline for compassion. It begins with paranoia, with the opening scenes set in a posh Amsterdam hotel. Okay. That's interesting. How did this distraught guy, Theo Decker (Ansel Elgort, Baby Driver), get there and why? Well, the story backs up several years, back to New York, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. There's an explosion, possibly a terrorist attack.

Theo is at the time a 13-year-old kid (Oakes Fegley, Wonderstruck) and his mother is killed in the explosion. Flashbacks repeatedly revisit the moment: a man running through the museum, a young girl. The smoke and dust. And Carel Fabritius' painting of The Goldfinch lying on the museum floor.

That works. There is curiosity around what happened and why Theo blames himself. But The Goldfinch never establishes a baseline for what Theo was like before the explosion, before the trauma. Before his mother exits his life and the painting enters it. Was he always a miserable punk or was he a happy-go-lucky free spirit? Nobody knows. But simply throwing one challenge — one bad choice — after another and piling it all on Theo doesn't in itself make Theo a compelling character.

The movie's troubles begin when young Theo is taken in by the Barbours. They're a family of such stature, Theo's shelter with them makes it into the newspapers. But they're a cold lot. Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman, Moulin Rouge!) seems to be the by-product of some plastic surgery, with a stiff, chilly demeanor. The patriarch (Boyd Gaines, The Independents) seems to be a nice enough guy, but a little detached from the middle class.

Tragic Journey

The downward spiral begins and rapidly escalates from there. That brief stint with the Barbours is basically as happy as Theo's life gets. He's in short order handed over to his biological father (Luke Wilson, Idiocracy), an abusive alcoholic and con artist who skipped out on the family and his child support obligations. Theo's moved to a dead-end housing project on the edge of the Nevada desert; there, Theo meets a Russian punk — with a heart of gold — named Boris (Finn Wolfhard, It). Drugs enter the picture, fueled in part by authority figures who hand Theo prescription meds just to get him to calm down, sleep or whatever. There are romantic appeals to the girl Theo saw at the museum prior to the explosion and there's an engagement to Kitsey Barbour (Willa Fitzgerald, 2017 TV's Little Women). Throw in the Russian mafia and a really creepy, aggressive antiques buyer and that pretty well covers the landscape The Goldfinch attempts to cover.

And there are still other horrible incidents crammed into the movie's 149 minutes that somehow manage to feel so much longer.

It's an overwhelmingly negative experience. By the time Theo's dad goes into a rage after a failed scam to embezzle $65,000 set aside for Theo's education, it's time to call "Uncle." Enough already.

There are better ways to demonstrate challenge confronted by strong will and character. In another literary adaptation, Steven Spielberg's take on J.G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun, watching Christian Bale's character endure separation from his family during World War II is a journey taken with the audience. Just enough time is invested in establishing young Jim's "normal" life to provide an understanding of how far he's grown and traveled internally by the movie's end.

That's perhaps the single biggest missing piece here — simply not getting to know Theo before all the bad happens.

But there are also some serious narrative blunders that call into question that Pulitzer. The most egregious is a ludicrous twist surrounding the painting Theo's carried with him for a decade. It's all wrapped up in newspaper. He cradles it at night in his bedroom. He visits it in a storage shed (then snorts some drugs). But he — apparently — never, ever unwraps it to look at it. It's a weak lynch pin with which to hang a major plot point.

The Painting

Here's where it becomes a little painful to have to rip apart The Goldfinch: the painting itself.

The Goldfinch is a very real work of art painted by Carel Fabritius, a Dutch master in his own right, in 1654. And Tartt latched onto a very clever device around which to frame her own story. Fabritius really did meet a horrible, premature end as the result of an explosion. The Goldfinch was his last painting.

And it has survived the centuries, now as a part of the permanent collection at the Mauritshuis in The Hague, Netherlands. It hangs alongside many masterpieces, including Vermeer's The Girl with a Pearl Earring. That one also inspired a work of historical fiction, a novel by Tracy Chevalier. And that, in turn, was made into a well-done arthouse (suitably enough) movie starring Colin Firth as Johannes Vermeer and an up-and-comer named Scarlett Johansson as the girl.

There is a powerful concept tucked away in this idea: a beloved masterpiece survives an explosion nearly 400 years ago and then gets wrapped up (literally and figuratively) in a messed-up kid's life, turning into a secondary tragedy to all the death and destruction of the museum bombing.

It's a big, bold idea. It sets an environment in which Hobie can make the observation, "You never know what's going to decide your future." That's a great line. And this movie needed more of those insights and less of the ceaseless barrage of bad life decisions made by a rogues gallery of remarkably unlikable characters.

As it all unfolds, certain themes start to lurk under the surface. These themes start to grow louder and more familiar. They've been covered on the big screen recently, in another major literary adaptation: It. That one covered similar emotional terrain, but much more effectively.

That girl Theo saw at the museum, Pippa (Ashleigh Cummings, TV's Westside), goes on to live a nice life. She moves to London, finds a nice boyfriend. She's adjusted the best she can, despite having to give up a career as a pianist. At one point, Theo encourages her to move back to New York, the scene of the explosion that altered the course of Pippa's life. But she likes her life in London and she astutely notes, "At least I don't think about it every second of the day."