Review: The Goldfinch (2019)

The Goldfinch is an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Donna Tartt. After exposure to this film, one might walk away convinced that literature as an art form must have died a decade ago if this was even on the shortlist for best of 2014; having never read the book, I desperately hope some key feature got lost in translation, as even the most basic plot developments are laughable conceited.

John Crowley’s adaptation is Oscar Bait in the most obvious form. This term is commonly misused as an indicator of bad quality, but this film exemplifies the most negative associations. The hook is painfully on-the-nose, following a young boy named Theo who survives a terrorist attack but loses his mother, eventually falling into drug addiction after a tumultuous childhood. The bombing happened at a museum where he ended up stealing a painting in his haze. This is the type of film where a character will go unquestioned while arguing the value of art over human life.

Everything is all so very pointedly poignant and infuriatingly coincidental; this story spans several locations and eras, yet every major character from Theo’s childhood pops up in his adult life. The inciting incident for the adult side of the plot has his childhood friend’s older brother recognize him on the street almost a decade later; this is a character who I believe only appeared in one earlier scene for all of fifteen seconds. How does he recognize Theo?

Nothing that happens in this movie seems to be guided by Theo himself. He survives a bombing and is dragged to Las Vegas by his father before he is eventually dragged into the affairs of the other characters as an adult. He has so little agency that the only major action he does simply serves as the basis for the time skip.

Somehow not the worst of all these various threads is Theo’s engagement. He gets engaged to a woman he doesn’t love simply because he likes her family – she similarly doesn’t actually love him. How are we supposed to believe this? This leads to a moment where he catches her cheating (surprise surprise, it’s with yet another character from his childhood), but that carries no weight since we have barely spent any time at all with these characters as a ‘couple.’ Theo is so focused on an actual love interest that it exposes this entire sequence as an obvious red herring, existing purely to show how supposedly harried his life has become.

And, again, it gets worse from there.

This is a film loaded with capital-A Acting. Nicole Kidman is painful to watch here, her face constantly contorted with deep thought and concern, always speaking in a near-whisper. Jeffrey Wright carries a similar softness, as if Theo would be blown away by a normal volume. Really aiming to outclass these performances, Finn Wolfhard hams it up with a bizarre Russian accent – this at least offers something enjoyable, if not for the intended reason. Ansel Elgort is so plain that he barely registers, though that admittedly fits his function as the adult Theo.

What really highlights the pure lack of substance to any of The Goldfinch‘s design is the costumes and sets. Take almost any still frame from the first thirty minutes and it’s nearly impossible to tell in what era this story takes place. Nothing about the way people dress suggests the modern day. It’s as if Crowley just desperately wanted to make another period piece after Brooklyn and didn’t care that the story he was adapting took place in an entirely separate era. Otherwise, it’s a completely misguided attempt at making something timeless that instead becomes shapeless, a representation of the filmmaker’s complete misunderstanding of the era they are literally living in. The strange truth is that this is a film that looks pretty good but the images are in such stark contrast to the narrative that it elicits little beyond confusion.

The Goldfinch is a total mess, an obvious attempt to win awards while putting in little effort to actually say anything meaningful. Complaining of style over substance is a tired argument, as it’s usually used to deride effective genre pieces for having a minimal plot. This, on the other hand, is an actual example of a work that favors style at the expense of its substance; nothing in the aesthetics matches the narrative thrust. This borders on being a sappy after-school special about traumatized youth that has as many pulpy turns as a soap opera – coating that with expensive costumes does nothing but suggest the filmmakers don’t understand the story they are trying to tell.

1.5 Stars Out of 5

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