Life can be more than ups and downs, as “The Goldfinch” argues, it can be just downs. This drama/comedy means to create empathy in audiences by showing them so many depressing images that sympathy is the only response. But it’s not. It’s actually just depressing. To see a 13 year old boy lose his mother in a terrorist bombing, and then to stumble through life one misstep at a time, is like stubbing your toe for two and a half hours straight. Nothing more explosively sickening has come out in a long time.
Which is a shame. Based on Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, you would hope that the movie could be at least half as good. It’s not. But it does stick to the source material, even if it doesn’t read between the lines. Theo’s mother has been killed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he rises from the ashes without physical scars, just mental ones. “It’s all my fault” he tells himself. What he does have is a painting that gives him hope and a canvas of friends that give him support.
The painting also gave the book its name. The Goldfinch refers to a bird caught in golden-hour light; trapped by a cage and caged by a microscopic frame. The whole film feels trapped. It’s never able to escape the repetitive beatdown of Theo (he’s literally beaten, cheated on, left by friends, has a drug addiction etc etc…), a gallery of poor performances and a run time that goes on and on and on. (It’s a mystery to me why this wasn’t made a TV show, with the book being over 700 pages and there being so much happening).
A lot happens here. The director, John Crowley, has taken liberties in changing the books’ linear structure to a time hopping narrative. That’s nothing to complain about. Crowley did a similar thing in the Oscar nominated “Brooklyn” to great affect. And it lets us see the differences in younger Theo (Oakes Fegely) and older Theo (Ansel Elgort). At a younger age he was under the wing of a replacement mom (Nicole Kidman cornering the market on troubled moms who cry a lot); as well as an antique store owner (Jeffery Wright). Wright, who played a robot in “Westworld,” is even less human here. Even so, he’s caring enough to let Theo take over the antiquing business when he grows up. “You have always liked older he things” he tells him.
“The Goldfinch” is good ol‘ fashion Oscar bait: beautiful to look at; hard to watch. Roger Deakins makes the golden lighting pop like bubbles in champagne. Yet the result is hollow. The coming of age story uninspiring. Couldn’t they allow Theo to smile? Couldn’t they allow the sun to come out once in awhile? I left feeling as sick as the hero at its center. So will you.