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Review: ‘The Goldfinch’ doesn’t play well on screen

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Finn Wolfhard, left, and Oakes Fegley star in “The Goldfinch,” based on the bestselling novel.



(R, 2:29)

Donna Tartt’s Pulizter Prize-winning tome “The Goldfinch” was a blockbuster bestseller and the toast of book clubs in 2013. The film adaptation should have been a slam dunk, with director John Crowley, fresh off the acclaimed “Brooklyn,” legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, and screenwriter Peter Straughan adapting Tartt’s novel. And yet, the movie is simpering and dull, devoid of tension, an overwrought and uninvolving film that is both a personal drama and a crime mystery, but also neither of those things, and nearly, nothing at all.

The non-linear and twisty script is wrapped up with coincidence and reveals, though there is precious little in the way of emotional connection or character building. Absolutely none of the assumptions that we, as the audience, are supposed to make about our main character are earned. Straughan’s script is endless rug-pulling simply for the sake of it, which is ultimately irritating and distancing from the characters, whom we are able to appraise with only mild interest. They’re fine to spend two-and-a-half hours with, but not particularly interesting company either.

It’s the story of the tragic life of Theo Decker, played by Oakes Fegley and Ansel Elgort. When he’s 13 (Fegley), Theo survives a bombing at The Met that kills his mother. This is the event to which we return again and again, searching for answers, as Theo blames himself. It’s also the source of his dark secret. In the aftermath of the bombing, he has come into possession of a famous Dutch painting, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius. Theo stashes it away, hiding it from his ad hoc foster family and from his degenerate addict father (Luke Wilson), who whisks him away from New York City to a Las Vegas suburb on the edge of the desert.

Crowley and Deakins create a warm and richly-rendered world. New York is crisp and cozy, filled with tweed coats, glowing wood, candlelight and fine art. But the story there is frustratingly coy, the scenes flabby with excess time, air and heft.

There’s a good movie in the middle of “The Goldfinch,” in Vegas, where the danger feels real, and Fegley gets to dig in and show his chops. Finn Wolfhard shows up as teenage Ukrainian delinquent Boris, and no one shoots the desert like Deakins. Compared to the darkness on display in this part of the film, and the edginess that Fegley gets to demonstrate while Theo learns the rough stuff about life from his father and father’s girlfriend, Xandra (Sarah Paulson), Elgort’s stuffy and utterly soft portrayal of grown Theo, pulling mild antique scams back in New York, is a snooze.

“The Goldfinch” is both too long and too short; dull to watch but scanty on the details about logistics, character, and just how anything of note actually occurs. The mystery of the film is something to be endured, rather than solved. But the real mystery is our leading man. We never know who Theo is as an adult, or if we’re on his side, or why we should care. If the end is a redemption, how are we supposed to offer forgiveness if we never faulted, or even knew him at all in the first place?

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