‘The Goldfinch’: Morose encounters with the unhappy, the unstable and the crudely caricatured

Despite an illustrious director and cast led by Ansel Elgort and Nicole Kidman, the adaptation of Donna Tartt’s novel seldom succeeds into its attempts at big moments.

SHARE ‘The Goldfinch’: Morose encounters with the unhappy, the unstable and the crudely caricatured

Nicole Kidman plays the mother in a wealthy family that took in Theo (Ansel Elgort) after his own mom’s death in “The Goldfinch.”

Warner Bros./Amazon Studios

“Are you happy?”

“Not very.” – Exchange between two old friends deep into “The Goldfinch.”

Talk about the understatement of the movie year.

Just about everyone in “The Goldfinch” is profoundly, deeply, tragically unhappy, and with good reason(s), because they’ve all been through a LOT of misery — sometimes at the hand of fate, sometimes caused by their own dark demons.

The Goldfinch


Warner Bros. and Amazon Studios present a film directed by John Crowley and written by Peter Straughan, based on the book by Donna Tartt. Rated R (for drug use and language). Running time: 149 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.

Sometimes a combination of the above.

“The Goldfinch” arrives as the very definition of a Prestige Project, from the source material (an immensely popular, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Donna Tartt) to the cast (Nicole Kidman, Jeffrey Wright, Sarah Paulson, Ansel Elgort, Finn Wolfhard) to the director (John Crowley, whose last film was the widely acclaimed “Brooklyn”), to the Shakespearean material about love and loss and betrayal and the cruelty of fate.

It is an ambitious, dreamlike, beautifully shot movie (with cinematography by the legendary Roger Deakins) that aims for the fences again and again in the course of 149 minutes — but nearly every one of those mighty cuts is a swing and a miss.

Although featuring the same core characters in narratives separated by about a decade, “The Goldfinch” feels like three distinct movies:

• Most of the first hour of the film follows 13-year-old Theo (Oakes Fegley), who was with his mother at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City when a terrorist bomb exploded, with Theo’s mom among the fatalities.

With Theo’s deadbeat dad long out of the picture, Theo (his face still smudged, his clothes marked by soot and ashes) is taken in for the time being by the wealthy, stodgy, blue-blood Barbour family, who seem spectacularly ill-equipped to help this poor child. (The pompous idiot patriarch of the family hands Theo a new pair of pajamas and says perhaps Theo should have a “little nip” of alcohol.) Even Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman), who takes a maternal liking to young Theo (though she has four children of her own), exhibits such cool reserve we half-expect to see little clouds when she exhales.

• In present day, Theo (played by Ansel Elgort) is a handsome, well-dressed, successful antiques dealer — but he continues to self-medicate with the pills he started consuming after the tragedy; he is engaged to the wrong woman, and he’s haunted by events of the past, including a dark secret he’s been harboring all these years.

• And then we get a ludicrous, international crime thriller development that comes across as if all parties involved suddenly decided to film 30 pages of an “Untitled Liam Neeson Thriller” script that never got made.

Not to mention — OK, we will mention — the parade of tragic deaths (many of them offscreen) involving, let’s see, at least five parents and/or parental figures.

An encounter with a dying man at the Met leads teenage Theo to the doorstep of the antiques dealer and furniture maker Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), a warm and caring man who takes Theo under his wing. Theo also reconnects with Pippa (Aimee Lawrence and later Ashleigh Cummings), the girl who caught his eye just before tragedy struck at the Met.

But just when it appears young Theo has found at least the framework of a family structure with those WASP-y Barbours and has made two great friends in Hobie and Pippa, his no-good dad Larry (Luke Wilson) and Larry’s gum-snapping, spray-tanned companion Xandra (Sarah Paulson) pop up and drag Theo off to Vegas, mostly because they want to get their hands on the money Theo’s mom left to him.

Luke Wilson and Sarah Paulson are wonderful actors, but they are stuck playing broad caricatures more suited to a particularly crass old episode of “Two and a Half Men” than a film with such lofty ambitions.

Adding to the cringe factor: Finn Wolfhard as Boris, who was born in Ukraine and has traveled the world with his monstrous father, whose drilling work has taken them to Las Vegas. In his heavy accent, Boris calls the bespectacled Theo “PAWTER,” as in Harry Potter, and introduces Theo (who has already been handed prescription pills by two adults in his life) to beer, vodka, acid and Vicodin, which they grind up and snort.

Little wonder Theo is still addicted to opiates and engaging in self-destructive behavior when we pick up his story 10 years down the road.

“The Goldfinch” is awash in metaphors, from the 17th century painting that becomes the MacGuffin of the movie to the moment when young Theo makes “eye contact” with the subjects of Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson…” in the immediate aftermath of the explosion, to Hobie using two outwardly identical chairs — one a genuine antique, one a reproduction — to teach life lessons to young Theo. Subtlety is sorely lacking.

It also relies on not one, not two, but THREE chance encounters in New York City as pivotal plot points, including two instances in which figures from Theo’s childhood who spent mere weeks in his company back in the day instantly recognize him — even though neither has seen him in more than 10 years.

Must be the glasses. If only Theo had gotten Lasik surgery somewhere along the way, he could have at least minimized his penchant for finding the dark cloud in every potential silver lining.

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