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"THE GOLDFINCH"
(2019) (Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A young man finds himself still affected by his mother's death in a bombing when he was thirteen and the painting he took from that.
PLOT:
Theo Decker (OAKES FEGLEY) is a 13-year-old who's just lost his mother in a bombing in a New York art museum. With his father having abandoned the family months ago, Theo ends up staying with his friend's wealthy family where the mother, Samantha Barbour (NICOLE KIDMAN), tries to provide as much love and support as she can.

At the same time, Theo visits antique furniture restorer Hobie (JEFFREY WRIGHT) to deliver a ring given to him by Hobie's business partner who was fatally wounded in the bombing where that man's niece, Pippa (AIMEE LAURENCE), suffered a brain injury. Unbeknownst to anyone, and at the urging of Pippa's uncle in the aftermath of the bombing, Theo took Carel Fabritius' 17th-century painting, The Goldfinch, and has kept it as a connection to his mom.

Just as Theo thinks he can live happily ever after with the Harbours, his father, Larry (LUKE WILSON), and that man's girlfriend, Xandra (SARAH PAULSON), show up to take him back to their home on the outskirts of Las Vegas. A one-time actor and recovering alcoholic, Larry has taken to gambling and his sights set on Theo's college fund. During that time, Theo ends up becoming friends with Boris (FINN WOLFHARD), a teen who lives with his abusive father and introduces Theo to the world of drugs.

Flash forward a number of years and Theo (ANSEL ELGORT) works as a salesman for Hobie and is engaged to Samantha's daughter, Kitsey (WILLA FITZGERALD), but often thinks of Pippa (ASHLEIGH CUMMINGS) who now lives in London with her boyfriend. When he runs into drug dealer Boris (ANEURIN BARNARD), Theo's world ends up in turmoil, all as he continues to blame himself for his mother's death.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
When it comes to screenwriting, the general rule of thumb is that each page of a screenplay roughly equals one minute of screen-time. Thus, while some writers pen incredibly long scripts and others fairly short ones, there's a sweet spot that most Hollywood studios prefer and that's somewhere between ninety (pages/minutes) and usually no more than one hundred and eighty sheets of paper (although three-hour films are usually pushing their luck in terms of viewer willingness to stay put).

Of course, there's no such "general rule" when it comes to novel length translating into how long a movie adaptation of it will be. Some screenwriters can pad short stories to turn them into feature-length films, and others are able to take incredibly long books and cut and economize enough to get the story and characters across to both those who read the original work and others who never had the pleasure.

Having done neither myself, I can't guess which is easier, but when faced with a novel where the page count is getting into the upper hundreds, I imagine lots of pairs of scissors end up worn out from the purging process.

With that in mind, Donna Tartt's 2014 Pulitzer winning novel "The Goldfinch" -- which I have not read but learned has a page count near the eight hundred mark -- would probably seem daunting when it came to adapting it. Interestingly enough, the film version manages to fit that literary girth into a running time just short of two and a half hours, but does so by taking the novel's linear plot and turning that into a non-linear storyline.

I don't know if that's how screenwriter Peter Straughan approached the material or whether director John Crowley (and/or editor Kelley Dixon) later rearranged it, but the result is an interesting if somewhat frustrating flick that manages to feel both compelling but also disjointed.

The story revolves around a 13-year-old boy, Theo (Oakes Fegley), who's survived a bombing at a New York City art museum that claimed the life of his mother. The actual explosion is only seen in bits and pieces throughout the film, which is either a creative way of showing the boy's fragmented memory of the event or a filmmaking ploy to try to keep viewers anticipating eventually seeing it in full (which never happens).

So, we follow the aftermath of that where the kid goes to live with his best friend's family (Nicole Kidman plays the mom), interacts with an antiques dealer (Jeffrey Wright) whose business partner was also killed in the blast (and that man's niece -- Aimee Laurence -- suffered a brain injury), and eventually is taken in by his estranged father (Luke Wilson) and that man's girlfriend (Sarah Paulson) and ends up on the outskirts of Las Vegas.

The film's energy increases there when young Theo meets Boris (Finn Wolfhard), a Ukrainian kid who's moved all around the world with his widowed and abusive father. A soul far older than his biological age, Boris is damaged like Theo (which seems to be the film's theme of featuring such fractured characters) but gets by through booze and alcohol.

Theo eventually grows up (and is played by Ansel Elgort) and works as an antiques salesman, but hasn't told anyone that he has a 17th century painting known as The Goldfinch in his possession, a post-traumatic souvenir from the blast and his only remaining connection to his mom (aside from memories of the fateful event). That eventually comes into play when he runs into Boris (now played by Aneurin Barnard as a successful drug dealer), one of many coincidences that start to overwhelm the production and give it somewhat of a cheesy rather than fun serendipitous vibe.

There are many parts of the film that I liked, but I kept feeling like there's more to the story and characters than what I was seeing. That, and the non-linear approach ended up making me curious about seeking out the book for more depth, but considering the page count, I don't know if that's ever going to happen.

So, as it stands, the film is a mixed bag filled with good performances and a compelling nature revolving around loss and damaged souls, but also a disjointed, sometimes flat and ultimately a bit frustrating approach at telling such a tale. Accordingly, "The Goldfinch" ends up being like the little bird in the painting, chained down and unable to really take flight. It rates as a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed September 10, 2019 / Posted September 13, 2019


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