Every once in a while, a beloved novel is slapped with the caveat “unadaptable.” Due to its sprawling length, complex themes, and indissoluble prose, these works are marked dangerous by Hollywood executives, and thus remain solely in their literary form – like Moby Dick, or Infinite Jest. Of course, that doesn’t stop Hollywood from giving it the old college try. And while most attempts, like Watchmen and Cloud Atlas, fall flat on their face, every once in a while a director, writer, and cast come along to demonstrate what the power of imagination and artistic genius can do, like The Princess Bride or A Cock and Bull Story. The Goldfinch, John Crowley’s adaptation of Donna Tartt’s sprawling, Dickensian Pulitzer winner about fate, trauma, and more, is not one of those exceptions.
At 13 years old, Theo Decker (first Oakes Fegley, later Ansel Elgort) finds his entire world turned upside down when a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art ends in a terrorist attack that leaves his mother (Hailey Wist) dead. In the confusion, young Theo makes the insane decision to steal The Goldfinch, a rare painting by Carel Fabritius. The bombing, and the decision to take the painting, shapes Theo’s life over the course of many years, as he finds himself living with the wealthy Barbour family, including surrogate mother Samantha (Nicole Kidman), inside an antiques store with kindly collector Hobie (Jeffrey Wright) and fellow survivor Pippa (first Aimee Laurence, later Ashleigh Cummings), onto the Las Vegas strip with his alcoholic father Larry (Luke Wilson) and his newfound Russian friend Boris (first Finn Wolfhard, later Aneurin Barnard), and eventually back to a drug-fuelled New York, where the decisions of his past confront him just as much as they decided his future.
Now, something you may not know about me is that I wrote my senior thesis on the art of adapting material. I studied different techniques, different viewpoints, and even wrote a screenplay for myself, working with and altering the material. So I think I know what I’m talking about when I say that The Goldfinch is the Driver’s Ed car of adaptation – an ABCs version of how to translate a novel. While most films would resort to their actors, or the filmmaking to fill in the symbolic gaps in the material, The Goldfinch resorts to voiceover to read Tartt’s text aloud, explaining the material from the first minute of screentime. And while some adaptations can use the voiceover to their advantage, like To Kill A Mockingbird or Fight Club, The Goldfinch is not one of those films. This mainly has to do with the fact that Elgort delivers his lines in a forced, passive tone, as if he recorded them with a gun to his head. Most of his inserts sound like cheap philosophy 101, and it is inserted so lazily and haphazardly there are large chunks of the film you forget it even exists. Not only does this make the voiceover all the more grating, but when it does return, you’re filled with an anger you had already forgotten about once again. Of course, perhaps the voiceover is necessary, considering how heavy-handed Crowley is with the symbolism. While I won’t pretend I hated every instance of metaphor and verbal irony the director has inserted into this project – there is a terrific moment where Theo reenters his old apartment for the first time since the attack and the camera lingers on the lipstick smear on a coffee cup – for the most part, the film lays its thematic material on pretty thick. While in Vegas, Theo and Boris take acid that literally has dice printed on it. When Theo’s mother dies and he wanders into the street outside the museum, Crowley goes to the Obvious Cliché Well to add a dramatic rainstorm to the sequence. And to make matters even worse, the artist who painted the famous Goldfinch painted died in, you guessed it, a fiery explosion. These are some of the most obvious, ingratiating metaphors you could think of, and while you could get away with some of them on the page, they have been done to death on the big screen, and should not have been attempted in the first place.
But what else should I expect? The script by writer Peter Straughan is one of the worst I’ve seen all year. The dialogue is laden with trite aphorisms like “You never know what’s gonna decide your future,” or “We all die. But to destroy, to lose something that should have been immortal…” The scenes are written as paint-by-numbers examples of what happens in the book. And in one of the most offensive examples of Straughan’s shortcomings, a scene near the end portrays Boris as describing the most interesting moment to happen in the 149-minute runtime and note, “It looked like a movie!” This is all well and good, but the film makes the decision not to SHOW us this sequence. That’s right – in a visual medium, a medium where you can visually create moments that you can’t adequately describe in a novel, the film chooses to not only gloss over this sequence, but to comment on how cool it would look in a movie. This is an affront that should not and will not stand. My frustrations with this film also spread beyond the writing and directing. While cinematographer Roger Deakins is without a doubt the greatest living photographer, his work here can only be described as bipolar. Some of the shots in this film are sumptuous, luminous, and amongst the best in Deakins’ storied career – there’s a terrific shot where Theo returns to his past while Boris slowly comes into focus in the background. And then other sequences come along, and look as though I had filmed them – and for the record, I got a C+ in photography. Meanwhile, Kelley Dixon’s editing is sloppy at best, draining at worst. In her defense, there’s only so much you can do with a rote “Dramatic threat of suicide, flash back to life, return to dramatic conclusion” narrative structure. But even with that defense, it doesn’t excuse the way the film feels as though it should be wrapping up at a point where there’s still a full hour left. Even the scenic design looks like it’s been half-assed – imagine the most stereotypical setting for a novel, or play, or sitcom, right down to the paint on the walls, and you could probably imagine the design of this film. However, the film’s greatest issue is not a bad script or a cast and crew on autopilot – it’s safety. The Goldfinch plays everything absurdly safe, taking no risks with the source material and providing exactly what the audience expects. When Wilson’s already-sh*tty father asks Theo for his social security number – “you know…for a savings account” – someone in the audience actually shouted out “Oh for f*ck’s sake!” And when you’ve got a film that takes zero risks and resorts to paint-by-numbers storytelling, you end up not only sucking the project of all entertainment, you veer into a much-worse realm: boring. Boring with a capital B. So boring I checked my heart rate levels and they had dropped below my average sleeping levels. There’s a lot of things a movie can recover from, but sadly, boring is not one of them. You can only write “I DON’T CARE” so many times in your notebook during a two-and-a-half hour film before you finally have to write it off as a lost cause.
Perhaps one of the reasons the film struggles with entertainment and artistic integrity is because it puts its stock in the wrong subplots. As a nearly-800 page novel, The Goldfinch draws heavy influence from the works of Charles Dickens. How much so? It opens with an orphaned street waif being adopted by a rich family and introduces a major character named “Pip.” Tartt was subtle about a lot of things in the novel, but Dickensian influence ain’t one of them. And like most Dickensian stories, there are conservatively forty million subplots rolled into one epic story. Now, what the best Dickensian adaptations (Oliver!, Great Expectations, etc.) get right is the emphasis they put on subplots that advance the story, execute key themes, and titillates the audience. Somehow, The Goldfinch finds a way to focus on the boring subplots exclusively, casting aside interesting plot threads to throwaway lines and casual mentions. Tired of PSA-worthy drags about drugs? Well, get ready for 149 minutes of a 13-year-old either doing drugs, or heavily implying he’s going to do drugs! Who’s gonna be responsible? The little girl who shares her morphine? The surrogate mother who offers him sleeping pills to deal with night terrors? A street hooker who forces Xanax down his throat? Everyone’s to blame except Theo or the pharmaceutical company, which makes for a series of eye-rolling interludes. In the meantime, we are forced to watch an unfulfilled, half-assed subplot following Theo’s attempts to bang his childhood penpal – all while banging his dead best friend’s little sister. In fact, there’s so many unnecessary subplots that some characters are left to one or two ridiculous lines of introduction – a major character from the book shows up for twelve seconds here as a douchey older brother, slams his fists on the kitchen counter at breakfast, and bellows, in his first line onscreen, “Who do I have to blow to get a cup of coffee in this place?” It’s supposed to be a dramatic moment, but I couldn’t help but laugh. Several characters are given this treatment, and then are expected to recognize each other fifteen years apart – as if the human memory doesn’t forget people’s faces after more than three. By the time the film returns to its main dramatic themes (that Theo feels responsible for the death of his mother), he’s already told about three people in the exact same situation that they’re being ridiculous for acting this way. It’s all so pandering and redundant and contradictory, and I don’t even feel like trying to decipher it all.
All of these ill-attempted, oft-repeated storylines are made worse by the constant teasing by Crowley and Straughan with subplots and ideas that are actually interesting. I mentioned previously that there is an older brother character who swears at his parents and instantly disappears. Well, he shows up later in the film to grab a drink with Theo. During this conversation, he reveals that two other characters, characters of major importance to Theo (at least in the book – they only mildly register in the film), died in a shipwreck, leaving the brother as the only survivor. Now, as the two men share a drink and discuss their woeful lives, the film posits an interesting thematic through-line: these two men are both broken, both suffering from substance abuse, and both battling survivors’ guilt. This is a fascinating twist, and had the film followed this thread along, it could have made for a richer, smarter film. And yet, this plotline is forgotten almost as soon as it’s introduced. Actually, I’m being too kind – the character and his story are never seen again. Despite his family playing an important role in the story going forward, he himself never appears again in the following two hours of screentime. There’s also an abandoned subplot involving Boris’ feelings for Theo, represented in one rather chaste kiss that is all rather confusing with the rest of the film’s messaging (side note: there were several people audibly shouting “ew” when the two boys kiss, which was…a choice on behalf of that audience, and something I’d not witnessed in a theater before). And somehow, even the subplots we don’t care about often get the short shrift. Pippa’s boyfriend, and Theo’s supposed rival for her affections (assuming he was ever in the running – a concept the film refuses to explore) is painted to be hated from his first minute onscreen…and yet, he doesn’t really do anything worth hating. Hell, he doesn’t do anything at all, really. He’s just in the one scene and casually mentioned throughout. All of this works to make The Goldfinch a rather frustrating film: there are enough good ideas on display to show it could have been interesting, but they aren’t explored enough to actually be interesting.
As for the acting, its quality is sort of all over the map. Nowhere is that more prevalent than in the two actors portraying Theo, Ansel Elgort and Oakes Fegley. Elgort is a talented, charismatic actor, but here he is boiled down to nothing more than a wet blanket. He reads his lines – especially his voiceovers – as if there’s a gun at his head just off-camera, and unlike his performances in Baby Driver or even The Fault In Our Stars, he is lifeless behind the eyes, as if he doesn’t care about his character at all. Meanwhile, while it is difficult to watch Fegley and think of anything other than “Who does this kid look like the young version of? Certainly not Elgort…” he does manage to craft an emotional performance that Elgort could not. I cared about Fegley and his troubles, and appreciated the chemistry he maintained with young Aimee Laurence as young Pippa (Ashleigh Cummings, the older Pippa, is just as boring as her love interest/stalker). Actually, Fegley and Laurence sum up the child actors in a particularly smart fashion: every single one of these child stars suffers from that obnoxious precociousness layered upon the young stars of today, but honestly, they deliver their lines with enough spark and enough honesty that I don’t particularly mind as much. Even the little brother character that looks like a digitally de-aged Justin Henry holds his own. Quite frankly, I’ve seen worse. The same leniency cannot be extended to the adults, however, as many of them are downright bad in their roles. In the most shocking turn of events, Nicole Kidman turns in her worst performance in a decade. The only word to describe her work here is BAD – she whispers every line, sulks in almost every other scene, and her biggest acting moment is donning yet another bad wig in a string of Bad Wig Performances (Destroyer, Lion, Boy Erased, Big Little Lies…the list goes on). Meanwhile, Luke Wilson is not unbearable as Theo’s grifter father, but he plays the role so over-the-top awful that it’s honestly hilarious. Jeffrey Wright is solid in his role as Hobie, Theo’s surrogate father, but for some reason I kept imagining other actors in the role that I realize would have been better, and Wright inevitably felt like a letdown. Still, at least he managed to craft a worthwhile performance – acclaimed character actor Denis O’Hare shows up briefly to give a hammy, overdone performance that broke my heart. And before moving on to the true stars of the film, I want to mention that Willa Fitzgerald’s performance as Kitsey Barbour reminded me of Isabel Durant’s unbearable turn in Life Itself.
And yet, in spite of all these bipolar performances, I want to shout out three actors (and two characters) for accomplishing the Lord’s work in this film. The first is for the two actors playing Boris, the Artful Dodger to Theo’s Oliver. From the moment Finn Wolfhard appears onscreen as the vampiric Russian Boris, it is like he stepped off the set of a completely different film. Wolfhard makes CHOICES in the role, performing an excessive Russian accent and dressing like one of the goth kids from South Park. And yet…it somehow inexplicably works. He owns every minute he’s onscreen just as he did on It, and like that film, he proves yet again that Horny Finn Wolfhard is the Funniest/Best Finn Wolfhard. But perhaps it is the role that is so juicy, and not the actor, for Aneurin Barnard is just as charming and entertaining as his younger counterpart, and as is the case with most great performances, I spent most of their time offscreen wondering when they would show back up again. And yet, as much as I loved the Borises, there is still one performer who outshines their splendid work: Sarah Paulson as Xandra, Luke Wilson’s stripper girlfriend. From her first moments onscreen, Paulson plays the role as a parody of Marisa Tomei’s work in My Cousin Vinny, and it is so campy, you can’t help but fall in love immediately. From the most extravagant line deliveries to tiny mannerisms she performs in the background (there’s a bit with her shoe as they pack up a rental car that had me cackling), Paulson commands your attention every little bit of her screentime. Quite frankly, this movie did not deserve Sarah Paulson. But she did it anyway. She did it for us.
The Goldfinch is an odd bad film because it’s not a terrible bad film. You can tell there were some people involved who understood the craft of filmmaking. John Crowley wanted to do something, Roger Deakins cared just enough, and some of the actors gave some level of a sh*t. But at the end of the day, the film is just boring. And no amount of effort can salvage something that’s boring to the core. Maybe this story would have worked better as a miniseries. Maybe it needed a writer who takes more risks, like an Alfonso Cuarón or a David Lean. But whatever it would have taken, it needed more than what this film was willing to give. And that’s a damn shame.