Ansel Elgort stars in “The Goldfinch,” directed by John Crowley, which gives the sense of a filmmaker stifling himself to avoid making his movie the self-parody that it threatens to become.
Any novel can be the basis for a good movie, if the filmmakers only dare to betray the book—to treat whatever interested them about it as raw material that they’d approach as freely as the authors had done when writing. Such freedom is in scant supply in the film of Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch”; the adaptation has the dutiful air of a mere digest, shovelling a seven-hundred-plus-page novel into a two-and-a-half-hour film that ends up feeling both sluggish and rushed.
Whatever your opinion of Tartt’s book, it is indisputably and literally a novel of voice, told in the first person by a character whose observations and recollections are the fine-grained stuff from which the complex narrative emerges. The movie distills the novel to a series of episodes that aren’t filtered through any one person’s observations but are merely locked into the through line of the story. As a result, the film doesn’t convey the free play of memory and the free flow of discourse but rather the mechanical tone of a cinematic Pez dispenser proffering sweetened and uniformly shaped lozenges of incident. (Yes, they’re sometimes bound together with bits of voice-over that serve merely as punctuation.)
The movie takes place mainly in two time frames, around a decade ago and in the present day, with two different actors playing the protagonist, Theo Decker—one, Oakes Fegley (the star of David Lowery’s remake of “Pete’s Dragon” and of Todd Haynes’s “Wonderstruck”) portrays Theo at thirteen, and Ansel Elgort plays him in his early twenties. Written by Peter Straughan and directed by John Crowley, the film—shifting back and forth between these times, as if to keep Elgort a little more prominent—attempts to emphasize Theo’s continuity of experience, yet, without the fullness of the literary voice and consciousness holding it together, that continuity is missing. The links between the younger and the older Theo’s experiences feel even more arbitrary than the plethora of coincidences and extravagances on which the story depends.
At thirteen, Theo, a Manhattanite who attends private school, suffers a grievous loss: while visiting the Metropolitan Museum with his mother, he gets briefly separated from her, moments before a bombing occurs and she’s killed. Theo, in another room, survives and flees the damaged and rubble-strewn building—but not before another victim, an elderly man, hands him a ring and instructs him to run off with a painting that has fallen off the wall, namely, “The Goldfinch,” a work by the seventeenth-century Dutch artist Carel Fabritius. With his mother dead and his father, an irresponsible man, out of touch, Theo is taken in by the fabulously wealthy Park Avenue family of a classmate named Andy (Ryan Foust), and gets some much needed nurturing from Andy’s mother (Nicole Kidman). He also pursues the lead of an inscription in the ring, which brings him to the deceased man’s Greenwich Village shop and his business partner, Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), a devoted furniture restorer.
Under Hobie’s tutelage, Theo develops a passion for antiques. He also falls in love with the late man’s ward, a girl named Pippa (Aimee Laurence), whom he’d briefly glimpsed in the museum, and his life soon changes again, with the arrival of Theo’s deadbeat father (Luke Wilson) and his new girlfriend (Sarah Paulson), who whisk him off to Las Vegas. There, Theo makes a friend, Boris (Finn Wolfhard), who initiates him into drug use and other adventures, before more calamity ensues and Theo runs away to New York. The adult Theo returns to Hobie and to Andy’s family; he becomes an antiques dealer and a master manipulator. Amid his new tangle of reunions, reminiscences, reacquaintances, and bereavements, he discovers (avoiding spoilers) that the painting entrusted to him has been lost, and he goes on a desperate international quest to recover it.
The novel is driven by a sense of wonder—the protagonist’s—that its teeming adventures and wild coincidences could fit together in the brief but epic span of one young man’s coming of age. (Tartt nods at this notion up front, with an epigram from Camus: “The absurd does not liberate; it binds.”) That idea emerges, in the movie, for the viewer, as bewilderment that a haphazard series of major events attaches to the flimsy dramatic frame of its scantly defined protagonist. That bewilderment seems to afflict the direction of Crowley, who, in making “Brooklyn,” the adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel, did an effective (if bland) job of defining strong and simple emotion in its prefabricated box. The emotional world of “The Goldfinch,” by contrast, is incoherent, and one gets the sense of a filmmaker stifling himself in order to avoid making his movie the burlesque, the self-parody, that it threatens to become.
The overarching theme of the movie is the preservation and the transmission of art and beauty, despite the violence and the cruelty surrounding them—and thanks to the efforts of people whose love of beauty is inseparable from their love of family and friends. It also depicts, with no examination whatsoever, the crucial role of wealth, including ill-gotten gains, in that preservation. (The crucial act of violence at the film’s outset is, in the novel, carried out by “parties that the news was alternately calling ‘right wing extremists’ or ‘home-grown terrorists.’ ” Is that all too timely, or too risky, for a movie studio to include?) Yet there’s precious little art at stake in the movie itself. The concentrated, closely observed intimate domesticity of the “Goldfinch” painting has no counterpart in the movie’s overstuffed appearance and dramatically clotted substance. The movie is textureless, flavorless, nearly devoid of a sense of place, despite its whirlwind tour of locations. The audacity of art, the boldness that went into the book itself, is nowhere to be found.
Watching “The Goldfinch,” I found myself fantasizing about one of the possible audacities that the movie, absent Theo’s unifying voice, could have hazarded. I imagined that the teen Theo would go on to take one life course and adult Theo would have emerged from a different one, and that these two Theos, unaware of each other’s existence, would meet. It might be absurd, it might be surrealistic—but it’s at least in keeping with the disjointed and flimsy cinematic treatment of the character, with the borderline ridiculous story that only Theo’s inner life (i.e., Tartt’s literary) renders coherent.
The commercial failure of a movie is, in general, not a matter of its aesthetic import. With the best movies, artistic merit often surpasses popularity; too many other factors, including the effectiveness of marketing campaigns and the blinkeredness of critics, come into play. Yet there’s something in the resounding flop of “The Goldfinch” that hints at the disconnection built into the project—not least its casting of a lead actor whose prior successes have come in familiar properties (“Divergent,” “The Fault in Our Stars”) or a blanked-out role in a film of flashy stylization (“Baby Driver”). It remains to be seen whether Elgort’s charisma can hold the screen on its own, whether his dramatic power will lend complex material a music of his own. “The Goldfinch” certainly doesn’t give viewers the chance to find out.