'The Goldfinch' Film Review

If any of you read my review of 'The Farewell,' you might remember how, in my discussion of film festival buzz this time of year, I never mentioned "Oscar Bait." You know the term - the films that get propped up in the festival circuits with wider than usual releases and prestige-level talent attached that studios wholeheartedly believe are the cream of their crop, much to the chagrin of audience hopefuls. There's a reason I didn't use that term in that review: I think the term Oscar Bait is completely nonsensical and overused to a laughably boring degree (remind me to go in-depth with that sometime).

That being said, I do acknowledge that there are the films that come out this time of the year that inevitably do get that big push, and for one reason or another never catch on with critics or audiences. If you've been following any of the Toronto International Film Festival buzz, it seemed like 'The Goldfinch,' an adaptation of the Donna Tartt novel which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014, was going to wind up being this year's poster child for that kind of a film.

For myself, I never read the book, but I was interested by the film's first trailer, featuring a stacked cast and John Crowley in the director's chair, whose last film was 2015's 'Brooklyn,' starring Saoirse Ronan. I was immensely curious to see if he could bring those same senses of emotional sensitivity and natural pacing to something like this.

So does 'The Goldfinch' defy the festival reactions and make something worthwhile? Only to an extent. While I won't go so far as to hyperbolize the reaction I had to this film, and I do think certain things are being shoved under that critical consensus, this film is a mess, with an overabundance of narrative ambition and none of the focus to make it compelling.

13-year-old Theo Decker (played by Oakes Fegley) is on a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York with his mother (played by Hailey Wist), when a terrorist attack destroys sections of the museum. With his mother a casualty of the attack and his father seemingly out of the picture, Theo goes to live with the Barbours, a wealthy family whose son Andy (played by Ryan Foust) is a school friend of Theo's.

During the period after the tragedy, Theo finds mentors in Andy's mother, Samantha (played by Nicole Kidman), a local antiques store owner named Hobie (played by Jeffrey Wright), a young Ukrainian boy named Boris (played by Finn Wolfhard) and even his estranged father Larry (played by Luke Wilson).

Returning to New York, the older Theo (now played by Ansel Elgort) continues to apprentice and work for Hobie and falls for a woman named Pippa (the younger version played by Aimee Lawrence and the older version played by Ashleigh Cummings), who was also injured in the bombing. While all this is going on, Theo has a secret: in the wake of the bombing, Theo stole a priceless painting called The Goldfinch which the world thinks was destroyed. But when news of the painting's existence begins to leak out, Theo resorts to dangerous extremes to protect the painting and his own past demons.

Here's the thing about 'The Goldfinch:' there's a good movie in there somewhere. In fact, I would argue there's a handful of really good movies in 'The Goldfinch.' The problem is the film wants them all to matter to our central character and there's simply not enough focus to make an interesting package.

If you didn't gather from my attempt at a plot synopsis, there's a lot of stuff to Theo's story, and unfortunately, that overabundance of content leads to a runtime that feels like a chore. It all sort of revolves around what The Goldfinch is supposed to represent to Theo which, to its credit, could have been interesting.

But for all the insight into childhood trauma, parental relationships, WASP-y New York classism, and other ideas the film seems intent on trying to form around Theo, the runtime seems more concerned with overcompensating for Theo as a character rather than the things he goes through. It also doesn't help that (NO SPOILERS) the third act of this movie feels like it comes completely out of left field. It still plays into Theo's story, but that portion of Theo's story feels like another filmmaker came in and tried to make the climax more (dare I say) exciting to little results.

On top of all that, I keep bringing it back to Theo - it's all about Theo, right? Well here's the thing: if Theo's story had laser focus to it, continuing on with those ideas the film tries to bring up, then maybe I could've gotten on board with it. I'm not sure where 'Brooklyn' John Crowley went, but he is not directing at the top of his game, because if he was, performances like Ansel Elgort, Sarah Paulson, and Nicole Kidman wouldn't feel undercooked and muddled around in whatever theme-of-the-minute the story seems to feel is so important to give.

That's not to say it's all a mess. Oakes Fegley, who you might remember from the 2016 live-action 'Pete's Dragon,' is the real deal in this as young Theo. When he has to control the narrative, he makes Theo's emotional complexities and trauma's fascinating to witness develop in the midst of impossible tragedy. Even with solid efforts from Jeffrey Wright, Luke Wilson, and Ashleigh Cummings, Fegley's performance is the MVP here.

In addition, on a technical level, there are some good things as well. Cinematographer Roger Deakins gives the most mundane of living rooms the highest sense of vibrancy and scale, and the film is beautiful at times in its sense of visual framing. I also don't think Trevor Gureckis' musical score is getting enough credit; it's not revolutionary, but he gives that booming pressure of Theo's world and guilt a solid compilation of string melodies that I was always happy to listen to.

Again, 'The Goldfinch' is not a total disaster from all angles. Having not read the book, and only gathering from what I saw on the screen, there's a compelling tragic story in here that is worth telling, and with certain elements that I think are worth exploring. But through a very disappointing mix of careless ensemble, drab pacing, and ideas that are never given proper focus, this is a film that begs for a second look. Basically, I don't hate it, but I wanted to like this so much more than the result.

Overall, I give "The Goldfinch" 4/10


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