Movie Review: “The Goldfinch” Flies Free of Narrative Logic

Movie Review: “The Goldfinch” Flies Free of Narrative Logic

I haven’t read The Goldfinch, so I’m not here to tell you how the movie compares to the book. I’m just here to tell you that purely on its own terms, the movie is batshit crazy.

Not that you had high expectations, right? After all, this is just a back-to-school guilty pleasure: a juicy dive into the lasting effects of childhood trauma, the finer points of antique furniture restoration, and the bankruptcy of American expansionism. It’s a page-to-screen flip from a Pulitzer-winning novel by Donna Tartt, whose Secret History (1992) explored the dark side of a collegiate classics department.

Screenwriter Peter Straughan’s adaptation, directed by John Crowley, doesn’t even work as a popcorn movie: you can’t crunch popcorn because the soundtrack is so often nearly silent as the characters moodily attempt to figure out what the hell is going on, and why. Our eyeglassed hero Theo (that’s the only way you can tell that young Oakes Fegley and adult Ansel Elgort are meant to be the same person) rolls through the film like a tumbleweed, a purposeless Pip surrounded by characters who take to him, or don’t, for reasons we’re supposed to take for granted just because the kid lost his mom in a museum blast.

That’s right, a museum blast. The film overflows with ostentatious references to the fine-art canon, a sort of intellectual window-dressing that gives the film an air of extreme erudition that wafts away whenever you actually try to approach it.

A perfect example comes when the motherless Theo makes his way to the bedside of a peer named Pippa (Aimee Laurence), a girl who was standing next to him at the time of the explosion. She’s suffered a traumatic brain injury that’s taken away her formerly precocious musical ability, and she hands off her precious iPod (paging Baby Driver) for Theo’s enjoyment. It’s loaded with one of her favorites: Glenn Gould playing Beethoven.

Beethoven? There’s a reason Glenn Gould is famous for playing Bach: he was chary of the entire Romantic canon, and his performances of Beethoven remain biographical curiosities rather than anyone’s idea of insightful interpretations. What kind of perverse piano teacher put that stuff on Pippa’s iPod? This film sure doesn’t care, even after an adult Theo takes Pippa to a Gould documentary. She weeps for her past, and we weep for our present because the hours are slipping by and we have absolutely no idea how these two fell deeply in love on the basis of two shared scenes and one act of terrorism.

Theo spends a chunk of his childhood in a deserted Las Vegas subdivision, removed there by his abusive father (Luke Wilson, in a strong performance that drifts by like a nightmarish tableau in a carnival ride). After the surreal serenity and sharp humor with which David Lynch handled a similar setting in Twin Peaks: The Return, Crowley’s treatment is as flimsy as the sheetrock walls in which Theo takes shelter, consuming various substances with his buddy Boris.

Boris is played by Finn Wolfhard, the only person allowed to look like he’s actually having fun in this movie. When he shows up Crowley quickly trolls him with a blast of synthpop, just a reminder that no character played by this veteran of the Stranger Things and It franchises can ever be far from a keytar. There are other echoes of Wolfhard’s It character that I won’t detail because they’d be spoilers, but it spoils nothing to take note of the outrageous Ukrainian accent that Wolfhard will be using at parties for the rest of his life.

None of that even touches on the ponderous parent figures played by Jeffrey Wright and Nicole Kidman, whose eyes we’ve recently seen so often brim with tears in Big Little Lies that when it happens again here, we long for Laura Dern to storm in and use her stilettos to kick some sense into this shit. Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins does create some striking scenes, but we truly have to suffer for his art.

Eventually, Boris (Aneurin Barnard) comes back into Theo’s life to wrench the movie into an incongruous and haltingly handled third act centering on the eponymous painting, a 1654 masterpiece that’s prized by Theo for reasons that have doubtless been explored in numerous high school English essays that make way more sense than this meandering mess of a movie.

Jay Gabler