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Thread: THE GOLDFINCH (John Crowley 2019)

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    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    THE GOLDFINCH (John Crowley 2019)



    A twisty tale

    Which would you rather be, a busty stripper-pole dancer who scams Wall Streeters for their credit card wealth and eventually gets caught - or a boy who survives a terrorist bomb in the Metropolitan Museum, steals a priceless Dutch painting, and has many adventures?

    Of this weekend's new movies, The Hustlers got significantly better reviews than The Goldfinch, but for my money Goldfinch is better entertainment. Hustlers is one of those visions of female empowerment as showing women can be as crass and venial and greedy as men. It is a repetitious, one-track, and ugly tale. The Goldfinch, okay, critics say it isn't worthy of the book (which I have not read) but a bland and generic run-through. This is despite the handsome sets, solid cast, and Roger Deakins' cinematography. It's certainly not that bland and generic. This is, even in outline, a good twisty story. If it stumbles at times in summarizing a meandering 800-page novel, this is a movie that takes you to some different places and springs some surprises.

    Hustlers is depressing. The Goldfinch sings, or at least tries to. It has its moments and its many byways. One of these is the invalid girl who bonds with the lost boy in the posh Upper East Side and turns him on to classical piano. Donna Tartt had me at Glenn Gould playing Beethoven.

    The protagonist is a prim, bespectacled Upper East Side boy called Theo Dekker (Oates Fegley, later morphing into Ansel Eigort). Another moment that sings comes with the arrival of a tall, pale, rakish Ukrainian boy in Las Vegas who uses a small black umbrella to avoid the sun. Young Boris is played with delicate panache and zest by Finn Wolfhard (of "Stranger Things"; later Boris comes back (with a tiny bit more of a Russian accent) as the warm, engaging Aneurin Barnard (of Dunkirk). This deep young male friendship may seem somewhat concocted, but it's vividly imagined and cinematic.

    The Goldfinch is adapted from the novel by Donna Tartt that won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2014. John Crowley, people point out, made the Ireland-America story, Brooklyn (NYFF 2015). I'd forgotten he also made Andrew Garfield's debut, Boy A. The Goldfinch is full of twists and turns and it's about a lot of things.

    First of all it is about tragedy, then about beauty, about quality, about creative originality and about the imperishable nature of art. Hence the girl who can't play classical music anymore, the theft of the masterpiece (but is it really one?), and the antique furniture restorations made by Hobie (James Wright) - the ambiguous keeper of the flame of authenticity that Theo ambivalently exploits. As the film moves back and forth in time between consequences and origins, this already seems, to me anyway, pretty interesting. It shows that an elaborate 800-page novel gives you a lot to work with, even if it's more than you, or your filmmaker, can chew.

    The world young Theo is in, or on the edge of, is of wealthy New York, or perhaps the "Urban Haute Bourgeoisie" that Whit Stillman referred to in his witty, classic debut film, Metropiolitan. This is not the snide, glitzy world of "Gossip Girl" but a view not as witty as Whit Stillman's that takes New York money more seriously. It's a world where the security of old money is punctured by abnormalities, and by drunkenness or other abuses. After the explosion, Theo's mother (Hailey Wist) is dead and young Theo, misreading a signal, runs off with a little painting. Everything flows from this event, which we only glimpse, and we don't see exactly how Theo's mother goes, or quite understand how Theo snatches the little 1654 painting, "The Goldfinch," by Carel Fabritius. We do see him receive a ring from a dying antique dealer, Welty (Robert Joy), which leads him to Hobbie and his calling in life.

    Then young Theo is rescued by the wealthy Park Avenue Barbour family because he knows one of their sons at school, Andy Barbour. This upper class family is stiff, but decent. Eventually they warm to him, especially Samantha Barbour (Nicole Kidman), and he's just been invited to come to Maine with them - when his ne'er-do-well, alcoholic father Larry (Luke Wilson) appears with his tacky girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson), who's so tasteless she chews gum.

    Another theme is simply New York. It's the center of the world, isn't it? Anywhere else is exile, the worst. Two extremes: Florida, home of gangsters who cash out a deal using a stolen masterpiece, and Las Vegas, nowhere, the desert and empty schemes. This is where Larry takes Theo. But there he meets young Boris - introducing, full-on, anther theme: substance abuse. The scenes of revelry between young Boris and Theo are among the best in the film. Later (spoiler alert: but this is all out of order so there is no holding back of information): Larry dies and Theo must escape.

    Ansel Eigort, with his pneumatic lips, looks like a human doll. His waxwork physical perfection (with a face that occasionally twists into something real and quite imperfect) is the physical realization of the prim, correct behavior of the very proper, decent, bespectacled young Theo who wins Mrs. Balfour's heart. And this look of perfection and prim manner are fake because Theo is or becomes an addict and kind of a con man, but a smooth, pleasing one who really means well. He's the Dorian Gray version of Boris. But Theo himself is of two natures.

    Theo's love complications could come out of "Gossip Girl," but with a tragic central event. Pippa (Aimee Laurence young, Ashleigh Cummings grown up) has lost her mother traumatically to cancer: they have the bond of trauma. Pippa gets sent off to a special school (far from New York), but but she will come back later, looking perfect, like Theo. Butt he will marry "Kitsey" Barbour (Cathy Connors, later Willa Fitzgerald), whom he does not love, and who does not love him - a marriage of convenience! It's like Jane Austen, but not the way it's supposed to turn out in Jane Austen, ideally.

    The story, and the movie, turn into a thriller toward the end. All along Theo has been keeping the painting of "The Goldfinch," but being a priceless painting, it has plenty of others who want it. The painting embodies Donna Tartt's favorite themes. Stealing it may come to be a gesture of recognition of Theo toward his mother: it commemorates their last moment together. It's also value - money, beauty - things some of the characters have a lot of trouble distinguishing.

    I have to confess at this point, however, that I can't relate to this story as I could if I had read the (nearly) 800-page novel. A number of the details are fuzzy. This movie is in fact a little like a Cliff's Notes version (or whatever the current equivalent is) of the book. It runs through a lot of the plot details, but it doesn't quite tell you how they all fit together. It is suggestive though. I enjoyed the general ideas, and reveled in those good scenes. And there are others, which I'll leave you to discover, if you choose to go for the whole two and a half hours.

    The Goldfinch,, 149 mins., debuted at Toronto. US theatrical release Sept. 13, 2019. Metascore 41%.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-15-2019 at 12:22 PM.


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