“The Goldfinch” has a painting at its center, but despite a classy palette of ingredients conjures a lifeless, disjointed picture. Adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the movie represents a transparent bid to bring the book’s prestige to the screen, but it’s another case of literary underpinnings being lost in translation.
Despite the tragic circumstances that set the plot in motion – when a young boy loses his mother in an explosion at a New York museum, before making off with the painting of the title – the coming-of-age tale unfolds at an uninvolving pace. The story yields a series of dreary episodes before said boy, Theo (Oakes Fegley), graduates into his adult version (“Baby Driver’s” Ansel Elgort), who continues to be haunted by that past.
Moreover, the most dramatic portion of the plot – in what, as constructed by director John Crowley and writer Peter Straughan, amounts to a narrative hairpin turn – doesn’t really kick in until the last 40 minutes or so of this 2 ½-movie, feeling almost as if those sequences parachuted in from another film.
Although built largely around Theo as a youth, the film’s casting incorporates lots of shiny baubles along the way. They include, but aren’t limited to, Nicole Kidman as a kindly family friend who takes Theo in after his mother’s death; Luke Wilson and Sarah Paulson as Theo’s estranged deadbeat father and dad’s girlfriend, who whisk him off to the outskirts of Las Vegas; and “Stranger Things’” Finn Wolfhard as another outcast, Boris, who the young Theo befriends. (Wolfhard is fine, although his Ukrainian accent sounds a little too much like something out of Rocky and Bullwinkle.)
The grown Theo finds a career selling antiques, partnering with a dealer, Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), whose ties to the lad also go back to the museum bombing. But Theo continues to sleepwalk through his life, however charmed it may outwardly appear, until the painting again rears its avian head, introducing a frenetic pulse to the closing third that’s especially jarring given the vague listlessness of what preceded it.
There are obviously larger themes in Donna Tartt’s story about loss, grief and redemption, as well as Theo’s stark odyssey, which results in a lot of self-medicating to numb misplaced guilt about his mother’s death (“It was my fault,” he intones at the outset) and disappointing experiences with other key figures in his life.
Wrestling all of that into a movie that remains largely faithful to the novel was always going to be a challenge. Ultimately, “The Goldfinch” is about not just resilience, but the enduring power and connections great art forges across time.
That’s a heady message, if a somewhat ironic one coming from a film that – its aspirations notwithstanding – seems destined to be pretty quickly forgotten.
“The Goldfinch” premieres Sept. 13 in the US. It’s rated R. The movie is being released by Warner Bros., like CNN, a unit of WarnerMedia.