Ah, the fall. The leaves are slowly starting to change, school is back in session, and the increasingly crowded field of superheroes have hung up their tights for the year. In movie terms, this temporal shift means one thing: slowly but surely, Oscar season is beginning its yearly creep. Over the next few months, the (remaining) studios will trot out their big, respectable guns: the biopics, the actorly swings for the fences, the adaptations of beloved literary properties (and, uh, one more superhero movie). Some of these movies will take home gold– some may even become classics– while others, inevitably, will fizzle before their award campaigns even begin in earnest. For better or for worse, it appears that we have our first entry in the latter category: John Crowley’s The Goldfinch.
Based on Donna Tartt’s bestselling novel of the same name, The Goldfinch tells the story of Theo Decker (Oakes Fegley as a child, Ansel Elgort as an adult), a precocious young boy whose mother is killed in an explosion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the daze that follows, Theo is urged by a dying antique dealer to return a ring to his shop– and to steal the title painting by Carel Fabritius. Theo goes to live with his friend Andy Barbour (Ryan Foust) and his affluent, cultured parents (Nicole Kidman and Boyd Gaines) before being whisked off to the desert by deadbeat father Larry (Luke Wilson) and his trashy girlfriend Xandra (a criminally underused Sarah Paulson). There, he befriends a lanky Ukrainian oddball named Boris (Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard), and the two form a bond in what feels like the very edge of society. Years later, Theo returns to Manhattan, working for the late antique dealer’s partner (Jeffrey Wright) and reconnecting with the Barbours. But, through it all, he can’t shake the ineffable feeling of loss, clinging to his ill-gotten painting as if it were the last remnant of his mother.
If I had to describe The Goldfinch in one word, it would be furrowed. Characters monologue and stare into the middle distance, accompanied by urgent, minor-key piano and strings and punctuated by distractingly elliptical editing. They speak in the stilted, pretentious manner of a Wes Anderson film, but without the remove that invites the audience to be amused. This is a film which shows children in immaculately combed haircuts and tasteful cardigans dropping bon mots and earnestly discussing Glenn Gould and Rembrandt, and has no evident awareness that this is at all unusual. The cast is filled with actors who I’ll happily watch in anything, but most are granted a disappointingly narrow lane in which to display their talents (faring best is probably Paulson’s American Horror Story costar Denis O’Hare, fully in his element as a snippy antique collector). When Theo’s father collects him, it’s clear we’re supposed to believe that Theo’s come to view the Barbours as his family, but up until that moment we’re given no reason to find them anything but chilly and aloof. Nicole Kidman is a magnetic actress, but being played by Nicole Kidman can’t be character’s only endearing attribute.
I’ll admit to not having read The Goldfinch, and will give it the benefit of the doubt that something was lost in the translation from page to screen (Tartt won a Pulitzer for it, which is certainly more than I’ve ever done). But as it stands, the pacing feels off, and the story muddled. Following an hour-long first act centered on Theo as a child in New York, we jump to the present day, only to almost immediately go back to Theo’s time in Nevada. As a result, it’s difficult to find one’s footing in the present. About midway through the film, a character levels a shocking allegation at adult Theo, and because we’ve spent so little time with this version of the character it’s genuinely unclear in the moment how seriously we’re meant to take it. And this is all before the jarringly action-packed finale, which arrives so abruptly and is so truncatedly cut that it at times almost feels like a trailer for the next installment.
That being said, The Goldfinch is far from a poorly made film. It’s beautifully shot, and the music and editing sometimes combine to a nearly hypnotic effect. Perhaps tellingly, some of the most effective scenes are the ones in which Crowley allows his characters to stop talking, as in a drug trip accompanied by the foreboding opening bars of “Everything in its Right Place,” or an affecting cross-country trip set to Them’s cover of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” And I was honestly surprised at how much I enjoyed Elgort as a presence. I loved Baby Driver, of course, but that film cast its lead as more of an archetype than a character, and I was unsure going in whether the actor was prepared to anchor a more conventional drama. As it turns out, Elgort is just as winning a presence on his feet as in a sports car, and provides such a breath of life that I found myself wishing we could spend more time in the now and less time flashing back.
Of all genres of flops, I find myself pitying the Failed Oscar Contender more than most. Even the most catastrophic blockbuster dud can find a second life and more appreciative audience on home video and streaming; see the critical reassessment of Jupiter Ascending for a recent example. The same can be said of horror films, comedies, and teen flicks. But what about when the initial praise is the point? When was the last time you heard someone talking about Albert Nobbs, or Seven Pounds, or J. Edgar? Time will tell whether The Goldfinch garners enough box office and goodwill to get it across the finish line (though its current Rotten Tomatoes score doesn’t bode well), but if not, who is it for? Perhaps fans of the book will champion it, and its more outlandish touches may be just enough to garner a camp following (I’ll admit to laughing when Andy’s previously unmentioned teenage brother casually sits down at the dinner table, yells, “Who do I have to blow to get a cup of coffee?” then slams his plate down and storms out of the room). If not, it’s likely doomed to the same fate as its title painting: unseen for decades.
dir. John Crowley
Opens Friday, 9/13, pretty much everywhere (though the Hassle recommends the Somerville Theatre or your local independently-owned multiplex)