The Goldfinch: Hollywood burns another book

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Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Amazon began as a bookseller, so maybe no one ever told them that film has its own storytelling advantages, and you should use those advantages if you’re making a movie. 

Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller The Goldfinch is dense and precious, with the kind of prose that finds 50 pages of ways to say a desert is hot, but there is a sweeping narrative that would have made an engrossing film. Instead, Amazon and director John Crowley decided to reverently copy the book. The 800-page book.

I guess to save time, Crowley dispenses with showing the maternal relationship that is the basis for protagonist Theo’s entire emotional arc. Thus he’s just a kid who wakes up after an (unexplained) explosion, and fishes a painting from the rubble. Mom, we’re told by actors from CSI, has blowed up in the blast, and the dramatically-limited actor who plays adolescent Theo is left to telecast his crushing Survivor Guilt® by repeating “It’s my fault” to anyone who will listen, and there’s no Robin Williams to talk him down. 

There is only Nicole Kidman, to whom motherless Theo gets sent. Mrs Barbour is yet another role that doesn’t require Kidman to modulate her voice or look imperfect. Nicole’s entire career has had one goal: to create the perfect half-Jackie, half-Marilyn doll.

Grifting lessons are dispensed to young Theo by the almost friendlier Hobie (Jeffery Wright), who has serious double-standard issues. In Hobie’s view, it’s OK to sell people fake early American furniture, but it’s criminal for Theo to keep the painting he found in the rubble, that was his dead mother’s favorite, and that everyone thinks was destroyed, because “Art is meant to be seen”. Please. This was the BS-iest reasoning in the novel, and Crowley feels he has to respect this BS for the movie.

Theo is about to be adopted by chilly but rich Nicole (jackpot!) when he’s claimed by his deadbeat dad and taken to an unusually boring Ryan Murphy production, AHS: Las Vegas. This go-round, Sarah Paulson is a floozy waitress and Finn Wittr- oops, no, it’s the other Finn, Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things, who should have stayed in the Upside Down while this movie was being made. He plays a Russian delinquent with an cringe-worthy accent he picked up from YouTube, because this $30-million-dollar production couldn’t afford a dialect coach (?).

In the novel, Theo drifts through the narrative, letting each new ‘mentor’ character push him in whatever direction they want. Fine for a book, but for a movie this can read as listless and unengaging without the right actor. A performer like Shia LeBeouf or Ezra Miller could have made this film move. But Ansel Elgort, who has shown some edge in other films, doesn’t bring it here, which again, points to the director’s choices. Theo’s experiences don’t seem to have made him any more interesting, and by the time we get to the finale, it’s no wonder the truly enigmatic little bird – the one in the stolen painting – is back center stage, albeit in a hacky Russian mob shoot-out version of Tartt’s ending.

The crafting of the film is the one aspect that resonates, so well that wandering around Hobie’s antique shop and the Barbour’s Upper East Side apartment, or trapped in the stifle of the Vegas tract house, bring the movie to life in ways the storytelling and acting rarely do.

For every well-realized film adaptation like The Hours, there is Love In the Time of Cholera and The Shipping News and The Lovely Bones and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and A Million Little Pieces and now The Goldfinch, all popular and acclaimed novels that were DOA as movies, despite being packed with big-name talent and well-financed. 

If the perspective doesn’t change on how films of ‘respected’ literary fiction are approached, studios will no longer risk making them. Maybe that’s a good thing. 

#movies #moviereview #thegoldfinch #ratedfritz #oscarfail