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A-Ron’s New Movie Reviews With Special Guest Presents: The Goldfinch

A-Ron’s Movie Reviews With Special Guest Maile Alderwerelt, Present: “The Goldfinch”. Based On The 2013 Pulitzer Prize Winning Novel, The Film Adaptation Has Received Some Of The Years Worst Reviews. While Fans Of The Novel (as my special guest is), You Won’t Find The Film On Your Best Of The Year List. If You Look At It From Just A Movie Standpoint & Didn’t Read The Novel (like me), You’ll Embrace The Film As One Of The Years Most Riveting & Beautifully Crafted Motion Pictures.

Warner Bros is having a rough time at the box office just months apart from each other, in having three of the years biggest disappointments come from the studio. The summer release of the Bruce Springsteen inspired “Blinded By The Light” failed to find an audience despite rave critical reviews. Also premiering in a late summer release is the Martin Scorsese influenced “The Kitchen”, based off the DC and Vertigo graphic novel starring Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish. “The Kitchen” received atrocious reviews (very unfairly I may add) and caused the $38 million production to tank and only bringing home $15 million in ticket sales.

Warner Bros can now add “The Goldfinch” to that list of box office mistakes. In it’s opening weekend “The Goldfinch” which earned $2.64 million in it’s opening weekend and sits alongside “The Kitchen” as receiving the worst box office opening in history. Being that it was released in over 2,000 theaters and carrying a $45 million budget, it’s not looking too good for the two and half hour R-rated drama. Here is the big question…Is it really that bad as critics and fans have been saying?

To understand the movie you need to know it’s origins. Published in 2013 and written by Donna Tartt, “The Goldfinch” is a 784 page novel that was awarded literature’s highest honor of the Pulitzer Prize in 2014, that stayed atop the bestseller list for more than six months. Early reviews have bashed the film for being an unfaithful adaptation and has been criticized for the choices the filmmakers have made to make events or structures different from the book. Not having read Donna Tartt’s novel, I am unable to compare it to the new film directed by John Crowley (director of “Brooklyn”). 

Therefore I’m looking at it completely from a movie goers standpoint. After seeing the film I myself was curious and also didn’t want to write my review being solely based on just the film adaption. So I called in an expert a very close friend of mine named Maile, whom I have known for years. Maile is a real book expert and a real literary type and she recently finished reading “The Goldfinch”, which she describes as “amazing”. She was very ecstatic about the book and has been anxiously awaiting the film adaption. While her thoughts on the film were less than stellar, she also says “It’s a tough book to adapt” and with myself not having even read the book, I can feel that from just watching the film alone.

While like most film versions director John Crowley and screenwriter Peter Straughan (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “The Snowman”), go through the book with a red pen and cuts the narrative down. A lot is packed into it’s 149-minute run-time, as we follow our lead character Theo’s remarkable life that plays out across three cities and two different storylines of his life as a kid and one as an adult.

The film opens with young Theo (Oakes Fegley) recovering in the Metropolitan Art Museum in an aftermath of a bombing that killed his mother. We also cut to images of an adult Theo (“Baby Driver” Ansel Elgort) scrubbing blood out of his clothes in an Amsterdam hotel room. The films narrative shifts back to the aftermath of the bombing as the audiences go alongside Theo, as he protects the titular Goldfinch, a priceless 17th century painting by Dutch painter Carel Fabritius, that he stole from the museum while crawling out from the rubble.

Theo moves in with the wealthy Barbour family who’s taken him in post-tragedy. The ultra-stylish mother (played by Nicole Kidman) looks after him attentively. The Barbours’ home is cold and stiff, but she and Theo get along famously, since the stuffy museum-like atmosphere of the Barbours’ home is a perfect fit for Theo’s old soul. Theo loves artwork and antiques, and Mrs. Barbour appreciates the attention, since none of her four kids has ever shown much interest in her passion.

Theo makes a friend with Hobie (played by the always reliable Jeffrey Wright), an owner of an antique furniture shop. Hobie evolves into a reliable mentor to Theo, while also taking care of a girl also staying there named Pippa (Aimee Laurence, later Ashleigh Cummings), who is recovering from a head injury and becomes something of a romantic touchstone through Theo’s years.

Along the way Theo meets the maddest, wildest and most unusual character in the story, a Ukrainian-Russian kid named Boris (“Stranger Things” Finn Wolfhard). A foreign-born child who lives with his abusive father in the same forlorn housing development as Theo, that is so far from town that no one else lives there. 

Boris isn’t exactly the best influence for Theo, as he tries to survive his desert exile, while living with his dad (played by an exceptional Luke Wilson) and girlfriend Xandra (a perfectly cast Sarah Paulson), who have resumed custody of Theo and his trust fund. As the story unfolds, the boys grow older and cross paths later in life under grave and violent circumstances in Amsterdam, to deal with the complicated legacy of Theo’s long-hidden, much sought-after artistic possession.

I didn’t have to read the book to know that what I didn’t like in Crowley’s film adaption, is the same things readers of the book also didn’t like. The choice of the museum explosion being broken up and dropped in throughout the movie as flashbacks, leaves the event not being able to pack the punch it should. Having the event be told in small flashbacks leads to one of the film’s biggest downfalls as we never get a sense of the bond between Theo and his mother who died in the bombing. 

I had to get input from my best friend and book enthusiast Maile on how she felt about this depiction: “They really should have kept the museum bombing as a whole scene in the beginning, rather than cutting it up and scattering it throughout the film. I’m not sure what they were trying to achieve by doing that. Grief and loss are major themes in the book, and it all stems from that one event. By more or less leaving it out of the movie, it severs any kind of emotional connection that the audiences might’ve had with Theo. Audiences won’t know about the kind of relationship he had with his mom (they were very close in the book) and I feel like the events leading up to the bombing were important because he always felt like it was his fault that she died. I know they touched upon that in the movie a little, but it wasn’t as impactful as in the book. His guilt, along with his grief, plays a major part in why he ended up going down such dark roads later on in life”. 

Director John Crowley draws out strong work from the sprawling ensemble cast, most notably Oakes Fegley portraying young Theo. Fegley manages to capture Theo’s pain and confusion, blaming himself for his mother’s death. “The Goldfinch” is at it’s best when it stays with young Theo, which is thankfully the bulk of the movie. The childhood story is more effective than the adult story. Elgort is great but the material doesn’t give him a vehicle as worthy as it gives young actor Oakes Fegley. 

Except for bookending segments and majority of the third act, adult Theo (Ansel Elgort) isn’t in the film for over 90 minutes, but still gives the young girls in the crowd 50 Elgort minutes. As an adult, Theo’s story becomes more contrived and relies on an absurd amount of coincidences like having every single person from his past who just happen to be back in New York the same night Theo arrives.

You can’t blame Elgort on the films third act as Crowley tries to stuff an entire film’s worth of plot and present-tense narrative into its final reels. The final scenes in Amsterdam are set-up for a Alfred Hitchockian thriller, but just ends up feeling rushed, tacked on, and frustratingly anti-climactic. So much so that the painting suddenly just becomes more of a maguffin, instead of working as more of a symbol when it was in Theo’s childhood.

Jeffrey Wright is a great and reliable presence once again, as he always is. His scenes with both Fegley and Elgort breathe with the seasoned wisdom of the performer that he is. Wright brilliantly knows how to use a prop and embrace its physicality as he runs his hands along pieces of furniture. He shows Theo the ropes while observing the nuances and details that distinguish the difference between an antiques masterpiece and a fraud piece. 

“The Goldfinch” also finds a strong asset in the crisp lensing by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, while an inconsistent soundtrack features moving musical cues one moment and random tracks the next. Who really expected “The Goldfinch” to feature a Pussycats Dolls cover of “Jai Ho”, the theme from Oscar winner “Slumdog Millionaire”?!

When looking at it from a filmmaking and movie standpoint there’s a lot to like about “The Goldfinch”. Including a great direction in which I appreciated the shot of Theo embracing the Goldfinch painting as grief over his mother twists him into a fetal position as Crowley shoots it as visually and emotionally powerful, and some of the photography in the desolation of the failed Las Vegas subdivision is gorgeous. 

The film showcases themes of preservation, fighting for art, culture, family, love, and embracing anything that matters to you. When the film reached the two and a half hour mark, I found “The Goldfinch” to be an elegant and engaging film that speeds on by.

There is quite a bit to chew on in one movie, and sometimes the message is occasionally muddled through all the complexity of the characters, and the psychology of the story, and the timespan involved. But in the end, Crowley’s film remains a visual version of Tartt’s heartbreaking and beautiful story. The film is a lot like life coping with beauty, grief, drama, tragedy, light and pain, where sometimes it can be confusing but is always compelling.

It seems as tho “The Goldfinch” would have been better served as a mini-series. Having the episodic nature of television would allow audiences to spend more time on the different settings and timelines, or around the the third act that featured the plot of criminals populating art’s black market.

Crowley has succeeded in making a riveting and beautifully crafted motion picture. While “The Goldfinch” is not the most faithful adaption of the popular novel, there are elements that will amaze you and bits that will infuriate you (especially if your a fan of the novel). One thing is certain: you will definitely have an opinion about it.

GRADE: ★★★1/2☆☆(3 & 1/2 out of 5)

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros lives on the beautiful island of Maui. He is a member of The Hawaii Film Critics Society, movie critic for Maui Watch, a commentator and cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, learning about movies from his Grandfather and being self taught.

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