Three out of four stars
For those who have had enough of summer tent pole/popcorn blow-outs, you’ll be happy (or maybe you won’t) to hear the 2019 Oscar race has officially started.
Based on the best-selling (and Pulitzer Prize-winning), 784 page 2013 novel of the same name by Donna Tartt, “The Goldfinch” has (almost) everything on the Academy Award nominating committee’s checklists. There’s the pedigree source material, impeccable set designs, gorgeous cinematography, very serious subject matter, a marathon, 149-minute running time and downbeat navel-gazing commentary on the Human Condition.
What it doesn’t have is an Oscar-worthy acting performance (although Nicole Kidman comes close) or heavy or even medium support of the critics. While some movies like this released between September and November make a decent profit, the majority of them don’t — which is (mostly) fine with the studios as this is the time of year when they sacrifice profits for prestige. It’s also really the only time of year when they pay close attention to what critics have to say and as of this writing most critics not only don’t like it, they loathe it. More on that in a bit.
With over a dozen major characters (half of which are played by two performers each), an out-of-sequence narrative, a relatively high-brow concept (fictional theft of a non-fictional centuries’ old Dutch art), terrorism, child abuse, child drug use, children dropping multiple F-bombs and the like, this won’t be an easy sell to most audiences, even with critical support. It’s worth mentioning the mostly over-50 crowd at the preview screening (also likely big fans of the novel) was very receptive and outwardly pleased.
Presented out of sequence and spanning roughly a decade, the story covers the early life of Theo (Oakes Fegley, then Ansel Elgort) from preteen through young adulthood, most of it going from one nightmarish event after another.
After surviving a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York which claimed the life of his divorced mother, Theo is taken in by the very wealthy family of friend. The matriarch — Mrs. Barbour (Kidman) — cares greatly for Theo but keeps her emotional distance as he has a father somewhere who sure enough comes to rescue/claim him.
A failed actor turned alcoholic dreamer, Theo’s dad Larry (Luke Wilson) and his barfly girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson) are all sweetness and light and promise Theo a new start in Las Vegas. But it becomes clear not long after that Larry has nefarious ulterior motives.
Living literally in the middle of nowhere, Theo makes friends with Russian immigrant Boris (Finn Wolfhard, then Aneurin Barnard) who also has lost his mother and lives with an abusive father. The two boys bond over booze and drugs until it becomes clear to Theo he must return to New York.
He reconnects with Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), the co-owner of an antiques shop whose business partner died in the museum terrorist attack. But before he died, he made two requests of Theo which he dutifully carries out. One included delivering a rare ring and the other was saving “The Goldfinch,” the priceless 16th century painting by Carel Fabritius, a Dutch painter who also died in an explosion.
The adult Theo now works for Hobie selling rare American furniture to collectors which (for a while) keeps him in the close company of Pippa (Aimee Laurence, then Ashleigh Cummings), the daughter of the deceased partner who was also present during the attack and shares the same mental scars as Theo.
If that sounds like the revealing of far too much plot, rest assured it is not — since all of the above takes place in the film’s first hour. There’s still 105 minutes left and much happens before it wraps including a major twist or two involving the painting which will throttle those not already familiar with the book.
As is often the case with adapted novels — and in particular Pulitzer-winning novels — the movies made from them are going to have to leave significant portions out and many of the reviews thus far are comparing the two mediums as if they’re the same thing. That’s understandable, but patently unfair.
No stranger to distilling thick, complicated texts, screenwriter Peter Straughn (“The Debt,” “Frank,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) does as good a job as can be expected and fleshes out the main plot points as much as the running time will allow; Irish director John Crowley (“Brooklyn”) never lets the herculean task get away from him.
In retrospect, it might have been a better choice to make “The Goldfinch” into a six-hour HBO mini-series instead of a feature film. Even then the boo birds would have said that it would have been too much of this and not enough of that. Perhaps tossing in some biographical details regarding the tragic life of Fabritius along the way in the series could have made it all the more sprawling and engrossing.
If you choose to see the film and like it you might want to check out the superb, similarly themed 1998 Francois Girard movie “The Red Violin.” In it, the centuries’ old title object passes through the hands of many owners, changing all of their lives in some fashion and not always for the better.