A good movie flows somewhere within The Goldfinch, like pockets of warm current within an otherwise freezing mountain stream. Moments of emotional truth emerge, only to dissipate in a froth of ponderous narration and muddled plot construction. As an adaptation of an acclaimed novel, Finch seems tethered to traits that can only be forgiven on the printed page. It’s dense, cerebral, and witheringly overlong. I haven’t read the book, and it may be better than what we see here. One thing’s for certain: This movie is not a convincing advertisement for it.
The disjointed story wobbles around so much, it almost confounds easy description. I feel like I’m untangling several sets of headphones, but here goes: Young Theo (Oakes Fegley) is a taciturn boy touring the Met with his mom when a bomb tears through the museum. Theo staggers through the dust-covered detritus to find that his mom has been killed, but a rare painting, The Goldfinch, has been untouched. In shock, the boy flees the scene with the masterpiece tucked under his arm. Theo keeps it stashed away, as a reminder of the innocence lost in that millisecond.
Fate also brings Theo to two other blast victims. One of them was directly injured, the other not: Hobie (Jeffrey Wright) is an antiques dealer whose partner was killed in the explosion. He serves as a kind of mentor to Theo. Pippa (Aimee Laurence) stood next to Theo at the moment of disaster, and was gravely injured. Like The Goldfinch, Pippa serves as an incandescent reminder of everything lost–everything that was taken from him.
The film burbles back and forth between this tragic coming-of-age and Theo in young adulthood. Now as a troubled man, Theo (Ansel Elgort) rekindles a bond with his patrician foster family (headed by Nicole Kidman) and the surly, drug-addled boy (Finn Wolfhard and Anuerin Barnard, at different points) who became a badly-needed confidante. We also meet Theo’s worthless father (Luke Wilson), and his boozy girlfriend (Sarah Paulson).
So. Much. Plot. The script flits around from one point to the next, never bothering to light on something long enough to make any difference. Put it another way: This is an entree where nothing feels properly cooked. If the story focused sharper on just a few of these story elements and left all the unneeded ingredients out of the recipe, The Goldfinch could’ve been a lot more palatable.
Another thing that gets more easily overlooked in a book: Contrivances. This narrative brims with them, but one occurs toward the end that’s absolutely unforgivable. I won’t spoil it, but you’ll spot it when it pops up. Two characters run into each other in a way that’s crucial to the plot and clumsily executed. Even if The Goldfinch was still on the rails at this point, this chance encounter would’ve sent it thundering into oblivion.
While I’m on a roll, let’s talk about this movie’s reliance on voice-over narration. From start to finish, we get slathered in flowery, over-the-top prose that might’ve–maybe–played better during a Sunday afternoon read in the beanbag chair, but it renders this movie deader than avocado wallpaper. By and large, I find it an irritating act of hubris when filmmakers think we need a storyline to be goosed by actors massaging an inner monologue with groggy line-readings.
All the actors do pro work, even if they’re saddled with muted characters in a dour movie. Nobody smiles. Nobody speaks with any kind of flair. The only person with any sign of life is the Russian kid with a death wish. All we’re stuck with is a muddled story that somehow feels both sad and uninteresting. There are moments when we feel Theo’s grief and despair, but these only show how flat everything else is. The Goldfinch has about 15 really good minutes of cinema, spread over a staggering 150 minutes of runtime.
150 min. R.