The movie adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-winning novel “The Goldfinch” could be the best-pedigreed train wreck in years. How does a movie based on such a well-regarded work, with such a stellar cast and talented crew, go so wrong?
We could start with the structure of the script by Peter Straughan, who also adapted “The Snowman” into such an ungodly mess. The story follows Theodore Decker both as a 10-year-old boy (played by Oakes Fegley, from “Wonderstruck” and “Pete’s Dragon”) and as an adult (played by Ansel Elgort) — and suffering greatly in both timelines.
At age 10, we learn in excruciating flashbacks, that Theo was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother when a terrorist bombing took place, killing his mother. Theo goes to live with a rich family, the Barbours, looked after mostly by the patrician Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman). He seems to be settling in, becoming a protege to Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), an antiques dealer and restorer — until Theo’s alcoholic dad (Luke Wilson) shows up from Las Vegas with a floozie girlfriend, Xandra “with an X” (Sarah Paulson).
Thus is Theo whisked to Nevada, living a lonely life in a mostly foreclosed suburban development. He befriends Boris (Finn Wolfhard), a Russian emigre living with his abusive father. The boys, left to their own devices, embark on wild nights of booze and drugs, until another tragedy strikes.
Director John Crowley (“Brooklyn”) frequently jolts the story ahead, to find Elgort’s Theo in his life. He’s become Hobie’s business partner, selling the antiques Hobie restores, sometimes with less-than-honest techniques. And some people reenter Theo’s life: The Barbours; Pippa (Ashleigh Cummings), an unrequited love who as a little girl (Aimee Lawrence) also survived the museum blast; and Boris (Aneurin Barnard).
Adult Theo also must deal with Mr. Reeve (Denis O’Hare), a collector of art and antiques. Reeve seems to have latched onto Theo’s big secret — something to do with a 17th century Dutch painting, “The Goldfinch,” that disappeared in the museum bombing.
Straughan’s overwrought (and, according to those who have read it, too faithful) adaptation may only explains some of the problem. There’s also Crowley’s overly genteel treatment, which focuses on the artiface of Theo’s worlds — in the Barbours’ opulent home, the tacky confines of Vegas suburbia, or the clutter of Hobie’s store — more than the people. (The upside is that such an approach highlights Roger Deakins’ lavish cinematography.)
Then there’s the miscasting of so many key roles, from Paulson’s gum-chomping stepmom to Wilson’s caricature of a desperate addict. Worst of all may be a tie between Wolfhard and Barnard as Boris, sharing custody of an accent that sounds like they’re going to make beeg trouble for moose und squirrel.
Or there’s the finale, which forces Wright to deliver the thuddingly obvious message — about how life’s too short but art lasts forever — before throwing adult Theo into Eurotrash gunplay and a resolution that isn’t shown but merely recapped after the fact. Art may last forever, but “The Goldfinch” only feels like it will last forever.
Opens Friday, Sept. 13, at theaters everywhere. Rated R for drug use and language. Running time: 149 minutes.