Perhaps it’s a tall order to transform an almost 800-page, Pulitzer Prize-winning doorstopper into a film, and in the end, director John Crowley was not entirely equal to the task, but the film, “The Goldfinch,” was at least a decent adaptation. A story spanning decades of the life of a damaged young man named Theo Decker, the film has adult and child versions of most characters, flashbacks, voiceovers, explosions and shootouts and, in a story with so many variables, some turn out better than others.
The child cast is almost uniformly superior to their adult counterparts. Oakes Fegley (“Wonderstruck”) is wonderful as a young boy whose life is transformed by a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which killed his mother and essentially claimed his life as well, since in the aftermath he dazedly walked away with the priceless painting that gives the film its name. With his feckless father out of the picture, 13-year-old Theo stays with a strange little school friend in his incredibly privileged household helmed by Nicole Kidman. Soon his life is further upended when his deadbeat dad returns, smelling money, to bring his son back to a sandy godforsaken McMansion in Las Vegas.
Luke Wilson does well as Theo’s shifty dad, a failed actor and semi-reformed alcoholic scraping by on gambling with a glitzy girlfriend (Sarah Paulson) and a big Ziploc bag full of Vicodin. The film hums along well in this segment, as Theo picks up with his best friend, Boris, charmingly brought to life by Finn Wolfhard (“Stranger Things”), a worldly whippersnapper with whom he gets into plenty of trouble. These young boys bring the most emotion that we get in “The Goldfinch,” even if cute Wolfhard boasts a Russian accent straight out of “Bullwinkle.”
The story is lengthy and complex enough in the first place, but a strange decision was made to keep most of the action in the museum explosion until later in the film, as a flashback. I truly do not understand why, and I wonder if a viewer unfamiliar with the book would even be able to follow some aspects of the plot. The explosion scenes, when we see them, are tense and well-executed, but I do not understand why the filmmakers chopped up further what is already a dense plot with multiple versions of characters and many potentially confusing location changes.
When we catch up with Theo, he is the pill-popping adult (portrayed by Ansel Elgort) you can only expect from a little kid who was handed plenty of drugs from all the adults in his life as a coping mechanism. Even though he is supposed to be emotionally cutoff and somewhat opaque, we viewers are also getting a heavy dose of “boring.” He has two love interests and neither actress manages to spark off adult Theo, and relationships that are complex and obsessive in the book feel arbitrary here. Elgort is a pretty flat presence on screen.
Jeffrey Wright, as Hobie the antiques dealer, the man with whom Theo eventually resides and grows up to become his business partner, is acting approximately 350 times beyond what the rest of the cast is doing, and fortunately he is able to carry his plotline with Theo, particularly as we come to a rather bumpy conclusion. Although Elgort provides a somewhat hollow center to this action-packed, coming-of-age story, there is so much else going on that it is not as big a disaster as the critical response suggests.
“The Goldfinch” was the biggest commercial flop of the year, but the hatred for this film was extreme and unwarranted. It was uneven and far from perfect, but there was plenty to recommend, primarily the scenes from Theo’s childhood. It seems like people are afraid to like a film after a few bad reviews come out and the tide was just too powerful against this one. Scathing reviews are more fun to write, read and share than good ones. If you are one of the many people who read the novel by Donna Tartt, however, this maligned, handsome film is more than worth watching.
“The Goldfinch” is currently available to rent.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
It looks like you are opening this page from the Facebook App. This article needs to be opened in the browser.
iOS: Tap the three dots in the top right, then tap on "Open in Safari".
Android: Tap the Settings icon (it looks like three horizontal lines), then tap App Settings, then toggle the "Open links externally" setting to On (it should turn from gray to blue).