With the lukewarm arrivals of “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” and “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” the literary adaptation has taken a beating in recent weeks. Sure, Stephen King held up his end, but that’s to be expected.
This dismal run continues with “The Goldfinch,” a tasteful big-screen version of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller. This one starts with a bang and ends with a whimper.
The bang is a terrorist bombing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum. Adolescent kid Theo (played by Oakes Fegley, and as an adult by Ansel Elgort) survives the blast, but his mother is killed.
He takes two talismans from the museum: a ring handed to him by a dying man, which leads to the man’s partner (Jeffrey Wright), an antiques dealer. Theo also takes a priceless painting, “The Goldfinch,” which will play a bizarre role in his subsequent life.
Theo is briefly taken under the wing of an upper-crust Manhattan family (a bravely committed Nicole Kidman plays the mother), who will haunt his later life. Eventually his irresponsible father (Luke Wilson, good enough to be just a couple of scenes shy of a Supporting Actor nomination) resurfaces, dragging Theo out to the Nevada desert, where they live in a featureless suburb with Dad’s brassy girlfriend (Sarah Paulson).
Befriending Boris, a wild Ukrainian immigrant (ably played by “Stranger Things” lad Finn Wolfhard, and later by Aneurin Barnard), Theo embraces certain bad habits that will last a lifetime.
Halfway through the film, we jump to Theo’s adulthood, where he has become an antiques dealer back in New York. The possibility of a good marriage beckons, but too much unprocessed trauma won’t make things simple.
For a while, “The Goldfinch” builds intrigue. Peter Straughan’s screenplay uses cryptic dialogue to advance the story, and we’re reasonably curious about where this all will lead.
The wheels begin to come off in adulthood. Having to draw together the various plot strands proves too much even for a longish 149-minute film, and characters apparently meant to be significant — like a girl who also survives the bombing — don’t get enough time to create impact.
Even with more time to establish things, it’s likely the story’s far-fetched turns would still ring false. Somehow the deep thoughts on the immortality of art don’t sit well with gunplay that seems to have crept in from a so-so “NCIS” episode.
Director John Crowley and ace cameraman Roger Deakins give the film a polished sheen that looks terrific and never digs beneath the surface. Even a scene with Theo and Boris tripping on LSD remains dignified.
With all these problems, “The Goldfinch” might have been engaging if it weren’t for the wet-blanket presence of gawky, baby-faced Ansel Elgort. He was fun in “Baby Driver,” but almost vanishes in front of your eyes here.
I’ll cut it some slack because it doesn’t have a talking dog. Otherwise, “The Goldfinch” joins other recent adaptations as a real misfire.
“The Goldfinch” 1½ stars
A misfired adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which spans the traumatized youth and young adulthood of a boy who survives a terrorist bombing (he’s played by Oakes Fegley and wet blanket Ansel Elgort). The film loses its footing when the character reaches adulthood, as the plot takes a series of increasingly far-fetched turns. With Nicole Kidman, Jeffrey Wright.
Rating: R, for violence, language
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