Every once in a while, a movie hands its audience a kind of coded confession of guilt—a perfect auto-critique, however accidental—on a silver platter. In The Goldfinch, that moment arrives early on, in the backroom of a Greenwich Village vintage furniture shop. Here, a sad-eyed antiques dealer, Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), explains the difference between two chairs, identical to the untrained eye. One is authentic, he notes—a hand-planed original. The other is a reproduction, machine-tooled. And only by getting up close and really looking at them, by running your hands over their surfaces, can you tell the difference. That proves to be a pretty good metaphor for The Goldfinch, a proudly “prestigious” literary drama that looks handsome and presentable and important from a distance, but whose fraudulence becomes clear pretty quickly, once you’re planted in front of it for the two-and-half-hour long haul. It’s an empty approximation of art, all gleaming surfaces masking a hollow center. And unlike a fake vintage chair, there’s no basic utility to this imitation.
Director John Crowley, who made the sensitive and transporting Brooklyn (a better movie by leaps, bounds, and just about any conceivable metric), isn’t merely replicating a general artisanal design—the agreed-upon look, but not the feel, of a Great American Movie. He’s working from a specific blueprint: a 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner from author Donna Tartt. Her Goldfinch is one of those novels everyone seems to sensibly insist is un-adaptable, its nearly 800 pages of narrative spanning a couple decades and continents, while touching upon everything from terrorism to Golden Age Dutch painting to Glenn Gould. Like plenty of hefty and acclaimed bestsellers, the book has been celebrated less for its plotting than for its detours and prose, for its storytelling and not its story. But on screen, The Goldfinch offers little but the hows and whys, falling into that common adaptation pitfall of fidelity without purpose; even if you haven’t read Tartt’s mammoth work, you may sense an absence. This is one of those page-to-screen follies that gives off the persistent impression, scene by scene, of a wealth of something being lost in translation.
Certainly, anyone reading the book, which unfolds in first-person, might find a clearer window into the mind of the main character, a sullen boy who becomes a sullen man. Admittedly, he’s got good reason to brood: 13-year-old Theodore Decker (Oakes Fegley) has lost his mother in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum Of Art—a random and senseless tragedy that the grown-up Theo (Ansel Elgort) has always internalized as his own fault, which he explains via a pre-suicide-attempt framing device. The script, by Peter Straughan, appropriates some of the interior musings from Tartt’s novel, predictably using them as voice-over that underlines the themes and psychology like a high school student marking up their dog-eared classroom copy with a highlighter. Still, at least we’re getting some sense of what’s going on upstairs. As Fegley plays him, with mannered introversion, Theo is a precocious personality vacuum, defined only by his trauma and grief. Elgort doesn’t fill in the blanks, but maybe that’s just continuity of character; he’s an empty husk at any age.
After the accident, Theo ends up staying with a friend of his mother’s, Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman, eventually slathered in unfortunate old-age makeup), becoming like a fifth child in her posh Park Avenue home. He’s then ripped from this relative sanctuary and into the clutches of his estranged, cartoonishly lousy father (Luke Wilson) and the deadbeat dad’s Vicodin-popping harpy of a girlfriend (Sarah Paulson), who whisk him off to the deserted desert outskirts of Las Vegas, presented as yet another of American cinema’s stifling suburban wastelands. Straughan’s screenplay dices up the timeline, jumping from these formative experiences to the 14-years-later present day, when Theo has become an emotionally constipated New York businessman and the protégé of Wright’s kindly appraiser. Characters, like a fellow survivor of the blast (Aimee Laurence as a girl, Ashleigh Cummings as a woman), weave in and out, introduced and reintroduced as needed. If our hero comes across as a sulky cipher, a glorified audience surrogate at best, the supporting cast sometimes compensates to the rafters. Finn Wolfhard, for example, mugs relentlessly in an unconvincing Russian accent as Theo’s partner-in-adolescent-rebellion; he’s much better in the flashbacks from this month’s other long Warner Bros. adaptation of a long bestseller about childhood trauma.
All of this plays like a book report. The Goldfinch transcribes its source material without finding any meaning, original or new, in its endless churn of plot. The film doesn’t even really communicate the significance of the project’s namesake: the 1654 Carel Fabritius oil painting that Theo recovers from the rubble of the museum and squirrels away, holding it close as a keepsake, the one part of his mother that’s still “alive.” Mostly, it just becomes a MacGuffin here, easing the story into a frankly ludicrous mini-thriller involving European black-market dealers straight out of a bad action movie. Presented without perspective, the rote recounting of events throws Tartt’s contrivances and coincidences into sharp relief. And that’s to say nothing of The Goldfinch’s sometimes painfully on-the-nose dialogue, like the moment where Theo’s mother ominously explains that she likes a painting because it communicates how “things don’t last,” mere seconds before a billowing eruption of flame and smoke proves her point.
Crowley, no slouch, lends the whole thing a crosscutting confidence, a veneer of professionalism any halfway-convincing forgery requires. But his choices can be tacky: The slow-motion flashbacks to the bombing itself (we never learn anything about who planned the attack or why) are more quiet than extremely loud, but they come incredibly close to tastelessly evoking the ashen horror of 9/11. Mostly, he delegates, putting the burden of selling the ersatz profundity on his capable collaborators. That means we get a score, by Trevor Gureckis, that tinkles endlessly away—a flop-sweat symphony trying to convince us of the movie’s importance all on its lonesome. There’s also the reliable craftsmanship of cinematographer Roger Deakins, providing an apropos museum polish, washing Crowley’s sets in warm shades of upper-crust orange or Manhattan blue, perfectly color-corrected to make a pleasingly highbrow impression. But you don’t need an appraiser’s expert eye to know a fake when you see it.