Within the first half-hour of The Goldfinch, you’re inclined to have flashbacks of another movie that generated premature awards buzz: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Both films are based on a beloved book about a precocious boy who loses a parent in a terrorist attack. This sends the child prodigy on a Dickensian coming-of-age tale in which he meets a series of colorful characters, one of which is played by Jeffrey Wright. Each film also features a mysterious item that drives the plot forward. In Extremely Loud, it was a key that the main character’s father left behind. In The Goldfinch, it’s a painting that young Theo Decker takes from his mother’s resting place.
When people think of modern movies that were inexplicably nominated for Best Picture, Extremely Loud is usually the first title that comes to mind. While certainly not without potential, Stephen Daldry’s 2011 film just didn’t emerge as the earnest tear-jerker it wanted to be. The Goldfinch sadly falls into a similar trap. Director John Crowley previously brought us Brooklyn, one of 2015’s best films. With The Goldfinch, however, he’s made a film that’s extremely long and incredibly cloying. Where Extremely Loud benefited from a later release date, this film is inclined to be forgotten by the time voters mark their Oscar ballots, save Roger Deakins’ lovely cinematography.
Oakes Fegley plays Theo in flashbacks while Ansel Elgort portrays his adult counterpart in present day. After Theo’s mother is killed in a bombing at the Met, he goes through a revolving door of caretakers. Among Theo’s many guardians are his school friend’s mother (Nicole Kidman), his alcoholic father (Luke Wilson), and a kindly shop owner (Wright). It’s like A Series of Unfortunate Events, except without the self-aware humor or whimsical charm. Theo also forms a couple friendships in a young girl who survived the explosion named Pippa (Aimee Laurence/ Ashleigh Cummings) and a Ukrainian boy named Boris (Aneurin Barnard/Finn Wolfhard). All the while, Theo clings to the painting he stole from the museum rubble, leading the world to believe it’s lost.
The Goldfinch has more characters than it knows what to do with and most of the relationships feels underdeveloped. This is especially apparent in a love triangle between Theo, Pippa, and his snooty fiancé Kitsey (Willa Fitzgerald). Theo views Pippa as the one who got away, but we rarely see any sparks fly between them. Both women vanish and reappear out of the blue, as do several other supporting players. Numerous character arcs are dropped without closure and even the ones that do get a proper resolution aren’t very satisfying.
Despite spending nearly two and a half hours with Theo, we don’t really get to know him or experience his pain. Throughout the film, Theo not only loses his mother, but two other people who played major roles in his life. The grief and trauma he should be feeling doesn’t come to surface, however. Whenever Theo learns someone has died, he barely seems fazed. There’s one death in particular that should leave Theo with a horde of complex emotions, but instead we get a cheap joke right out of a stoner comedy. The movie’s tone is all over the place, ranging from self-serious to uncomfortably quirky.
Just as we never crack the riddle that’s Theo, the screenplay is something of an enigma. At first, it feels like writer Peter Straughan is trying to tell a modern fable akin to Wonderstruck, a much better movie starring Fegley. Other times, it’s framed like a mystery, although there are few surprises to be had. By the film’s conclusion, it becomes a thriller with sketchy deals and shootouts. It doesn’t help that Straughan’s script is told out of order, which ultimately adds nothing of substance. Considering how much ground Donna Tartt’s 784-page novel covered, this story would’ve found more of an identity as a miniseries. At feature length, though, The Goldfinch seems unsure what it wants to say. As appealing as the cast, filmmakers, and source material may be, the final product comes off as misguided and confused, not unlike its protagonist.