I talk a lot about what I call “movie-movies.” These are old-school one-and-done studio movies. Some are immersed explicitly in genre and some are explicitly in the realm of comedy or drama. They are not intended to create or continue a franchise, strengthen a brand or hold up the tent. It’s no secret that audiences have drifted away from this kind of thing, at least at the theatrical level. VOD and streaming entertainment options have replaced theatrical moviegoing as the go-to entertainment option in terms of cost and convenience. Director John Crowley and screenwriter Peter Straughan’s The Goldfinch, financed both by Warner Bros. and Amazon (in exchange for streaming rights), is as much of a “movie-movie” as you’re likely to find in 2019.
Official studio synopsis: Theodore “Theo” Decker was 13 years old when his mother was killed in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The tragedy changes the course of his life, sending him on a stirring odyssey of grief and guilt, reinvention and redemption, and even love. Through it all, he holds on to one tangible piece of hope from that terrible day…a painting of a tiny bird chained to its perch. The Goldfinch.
The Goldfinch is a sprawling, decades-spanning epic rooted in character and visual beauty, based on Donna Tartt’s best-selling novel and daring to exist in a time of event movies and franchise fare. Produced by Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson, it wears its designation as a “drama” like a badge of honor. It is a character study, about a young man whose mother dies by sudden violence and how he copes with that loss as well as the other curves his life throws at him as he matures into a (still-tormented) young man. The film is stacked to the gills with fine actors, with Nicole Kidman, Jeffrey Wright, Denis O’Hare (in a two-scene cameo seemingly cosplaying as Henry Czerny’s Kittridge from the first Mission: Impossible) and Sarah Paulson offering sturdy support to the younger stars.
Ansel Elgort is the top-billed star, but the real lead is a dynamite Oakes Fegley (star of the also-terrific Pete’s Dragon) as our young protagonist. If anything, the film falters in its third act when Elgort’s now-adult Theo takes center stage. That is not because of the Baby Driver/Fault in Our Stars actor, but instead because the character study tries to stuff an entire film’s worth of plot and present-tense narrative into its final few reels. The first 90 minutes is where the film shines brightest, focusing on interaction, relationships and mundane life details. Finn Wolfhard is terrific in the film’s second act, as a young Ukrainian emigre who becomes Theo’s close friend during a time of loneliness and despair. He (and O’Hare) are the liveliest characters in this otherwise muted odyssey.
I can’t speak to source fidelity or how well it captures whatever fans most appreciated about the 773-page novel. And nor will I argue that it’s anywhere near as impressive as Crowley’s previous period-piece literary adaptation, the modern classic Brooklyn. But this is a John Crowley movie featuring gorgeously intimate cinematography courtesy of Roger Deakins. Seeing it last night on a massive screen at The Grove, it was hard not to be lost in its beauty and its specificity. Not unlike Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood, The Goldfinch is a lazy river of a movie, one that invites you to lose yourself in its world and its specific pleasures as it slowly tells its story at its own pace.
If we want more movies like The Goldfinch or The Kitchen, we may have to be willing to note that they aren’t going to be as tight-rope exciting as a big-budget action thriller or as fan-friendly as a superhero flick. We are going to have to forgive the lack of Easter eggs, sequel teases or the inherently interesting variable that is a big movie star playing a pop culture icon. Moreover, if we want more non-branded films, we can’t automatically snark-to-death any film whose trailer looks unique or odd. A movie like The Goldfinch is “just a movie,” a well-acted, handsomely-staged, ambitiously-produced and refreshingly grown-up film in an era when merely being a singular feature-length story is perhaps the most significant commercial handicap a film can have.
If this all sounds like halfhearted praise, well, it is. The Goldfinch is no modern masterpiece, and it’s probably not going to end up in the Oscar race. It has pacing issues and ends up saving most of its plot/incident for the third act. But it is the kind of thing we all claim we want, from a major studio no less, alongside the conventional would-be blockbusters. I will argue that it is a three-star movie that shouldn’t be unduly penalized because it’s not a four-star movie or because it prioritizes character over onscreen incident. It’s almost certainly doomed commercially, but unless we only want dramas when they come caked in clown make-up, The Goldfinch is worth your time and money.