It must be really hard to write a story. Starting it off the right way with interesting characters that have distinct personalities, then having to present a conflict or issue that motivates said characters to take action. And that’s only the set-up, then comes the task of keeping a focused narrative that allows the characters grow and develop. But a writer wants to make his or her story unique so he or she might throw in shifts in time and place, maybe entirely new characters to pop in and out of the story. One can always play with structure, but the structure still has to be there. Then there’s the ending, the grand crescendo of whatever tale a storyteller has spun that has to offer some form of satisfying closure to the characters and the journey they went on. It’s a lot to take on and a much heavier task than the one given to the guy sitting in a folding chair typing out his reaction to a story.
The point of this sympathetic intro is to say that I gave The Goldfinch a fair shake. A film adaptation of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel would be a tough challenge for anyone, but there’s still the expectation to deliver something good, or at the very least coherent. The movie’s title shares the name of a rare oil painting that sits in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which catches the eye of young Theo Decker (Oakes Fegley) and his mom one random afternoon. The museum is then bombed in a terrorist attack, killing Theo’s mom and leaving him alone in New York City. Fortunately, a friend’s family takes him in and welcomes him to their WASP lifestyle overseen by a stern but concerned mother (Nicole Kidman). From there, Theo’s life shifts between befriending a carpenter (Jeffrey Wright) and his partner’s daughter (Aimee Laurence) to moving to the outskirts of Nevada with his deadbeat dad (Luke Wilson) and his skanky girlfriend (Sarah Paulson), eventually befriending a young Russian delinquent named Boris (Finn Wolfhard). Theo then becomes a grown-up (Ansel Elgort) with the secret of the painting quickly coming back to haunt him.
One might’ve noticed the lack of focus on the painting the movie takes its title from in that sprawling synopsis, and sadly, that’s not the only thing out of focus in The Goldfinch. After enduring all 119 minutes of the movie’s runtime, take a test and ask a fellow viewer of the movie, “So what was that movie about?” If he or she looks a bit dumbfounded, that’s not a rare reaction. The Goldfinch has a plot and story structure that is comically scattershot and overstuffed with characters. The movie’s first half-hour or so has pace and structure that are adequate enough, even if its characters and actions are bland and sterilized without any sense of life to them. Some scenes are so full of pompous luxury and stiff poise that it could be mistaken for a Saks Fifth Avenue catalogue coming to life. But then Theo’s dad shows up to whisk him away to the model homes Michael Bluth tries to sell in Arrested Development, and the movie takes a drastic story shift. And that’s even before Wolfhard shows up with a laughable Russian accent missing the audition for a John Hughes movie 35 years ago. It’s in this chunk when The Goldfinch embraces a phony hipster-cool that would be unbearable if not for Wolfhard’s bad performance. Whatever character development Theo had stops dead for him to get drunk, high and slapped around by his father in what amounts to nothing more than a raunchy episode of Degrassi. Whatever that was building toward then gets chucked out the window for Theo’s adult years, which throws two completely different stories into the movie’s stew before leaving one out to dry and then giving a shockingly rushed resolution to the other.
It’s as if screenwriter Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Snowman) is going for the Forrest Gump plot of having Theo float through different times and environments to inform his growth and show his impact on others. The problem is that all the scenes connecting Theo’s time in New York to Nevada and back to New York are too rushed and sudden, jerking the audience in and out atmospheres with no flow. Topping that jangly Jenga-tower of a story are chunks of subplots that go nowhere and dialogue that can bore others to sleep. The flat direction of John Crowley (Brooklyn) certainly doesn’t help, leaving the movie to rely entirely on its groan-worthy dialogue and deformed structure. It does have a few bright spots in its technical credits, chief among them being the great Roger Deakins’ cinematography. The Oscar-winner has a lot of A+ work in his resume, and while The Goldfinch is in no way high-tier art, Deakins does manage to use the dark yellow of fancy New York City lamp lights and the bright oranges of the Nevada sand to make the movie have imagery of cool coloring and low light. It’s especially similar to his work in Sicario, Skyfall and Revolutionary Road, specific to the time periods. The other more surprising upside is the smooth classical score by Trevor Gureckis, highlighted by his use of soft piano and woodwind instruments.
The Goldfinch has a stacked cast for sure, but no one here is given a chance to make an impression. Fegley and Elgort get equal time throughout the movie as the young and old Theo, though Fegley actually gets the brunt of the work developing Theo overtime. Though the segment in Nevada is arguably the worst part of the movie, that’s where Fegley gets to stretch his legs a bit and show real emotional trauma. When he’s in New York, he’s stuck in dour stoicism with Kidman and her snobby family, who act like they all got possessed by the emotionless body snatchers in The Invasion. Elgort’s grown-up Theo moves dangerously close to Patrick Bateman-levels of stylish instability as he looks on the verge of either violent rage screaming or blubbering tears. Wright tries to be the emotional heart of the movie but is given so little screen time that he’s more of an afterthought. Same goes for Wilson as Theo’s father, definitely getting his dickish moments in but not enough to leave a mark on Theo’s overall development. But the piece de resistance is Wolfhard’s baffling performance, which makes Alison Brie’s purposefully cartoonish Zoya the Destroya on GLOW look as distinguished as Eddie Redmayne’s take on Stephen Hawking. Part Judd Nelson, part Peter Stormare and part Scooby-Doo villain, it’s a wonder as to whether or not this was a director’s note to Wolfhard or his expressions were so laughable nobody told him to stop.
On a technical level, The Goldfinch could easily be written-off as another half-assed attempt at Oscar bait your grandparents will find amusing for the weekly out-of-house excursion. On a storytelling level (a crucial detail especially given that this is based off of an acclaimed book), The Goldfinch is both confusing in its structure and boring in its execution. It’s unclear how much was lost in translation from page to screen, but the movie feels like three separate half-baked stories mushed together like Play-Doh with no connecting tissue. The acting is either hollow or shockingly bad, and its technical credits can’t cover itself from a crumpled mess of a script. It’s hard to write a story, sure, but one’s flaws can’t be this obvious to point out.