Old habits die hard, especially in Hollywood.
Warner Brothers certainly succumbed to this cliche with its clumsy release of “The Goldfinch.” After virtually sitting out the summer movie season (and to their credit, they didn’t miss much), the folks at the studio have returned to kick off the fall movie season.
For two consecutive weekends, Warner Brothers cued up high profile releases to considerable fanfare––one a much-hyped sequel to a successful franchise starter, and the other a would-be highbrow adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, one they elected to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. And for two consecutive weekends, they flubbed it up.
While the conversation surrounding “It Chapter Two” is more nuanced (it did get relatively stable reviews and managed to debut at the top of the box office), the fate of “The Goldfinch” is a little more straightforward – and a lot more tragic.
After being embarrassed with startling negative reaction at the festival, the movie was slapped with one of the worst opening weekends in history for a film opening to more than 2,500 locations. Unfortunately, as well-intentioned as this film might be (I was greatly looking forward to seeing it myself), it isn’t hard to see why.
As has been the destiny of several ill-fated literary adaptations, “The Goldfinch” struggles on account of two major glitches: a dreadfully unfocused script and an almost complete lack of editing. As was the case with with its red-ballooned predecessor, it appears the creative team behind this film blew their budget on about 12 screenwriters and then ran out of money to hire an editor. The script is overstuffed and drawling, lacking any sense of urgency or focus. “The Goldfinch” feels as if it was constructed by committee, each member refusing to forfeit a single extraneous plot point for the greater good of the narrative.
Of course, with only a single writer attached to “The Goldfinch,” that’s not really the case. But you could scarcely tell that fact by watching the film.
Look, “The Goldfinch” (referring to the 2014 book by Donna Tartt), is a dense, complicated brick of a novel. Same thing with “It.”Adapting these long form mediums to the context of the big screen is an arduous and almost impossible process. To be both creatively satisfying (pleasing fans of the book and discerning film critics) as well commercially viable (selling tickets to everybody else) is no paltry task. That’s why, in terms of storytelling, it’s important to work from the ground up.
But here, as with “It Chapter Two,” it feels like the filmmakers have gone in reverse. They’ve afforded us prime locations, immaculate costume design and gorgeous set pieces. They’ve secured winning performances from actors in their top form – when are Nicole Kidman and Ansel Elgort not in top form? – and riveting visuals from legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (“The Shawshank Redemption,” “A Beautiful Mind”).
The problem is that these details, which nonetheless make the movie bearable to sit through, are wasted on a script that, in this critic’s opinion, shouldn’t have been greenlit in the first place. At least not in this state.
There’s nothing truly atrocious going on here, to be fair. The dialogue is believable, the characters are somewhat likeable, the sequences make sense within their own contexts– there’s a certain reasonability to it all. The real issue lies deeper in the film’s attempt to bring life to the text at hand. It does so in a way that is exceedingly obedient to the source material, and faithful to a fault– noble in its pursuit but entirely too literal in execution.
What results from the script’s dutiful adherence to the meticulous crevices of the novel is a complete lack of flow for the film at hand. There’s no cadence to the progression of the narrative and no rhythm as its pieces begin falling into place. There’s little sense of purpose beyond the film’s ambiguous opening scene and no build as it dawdles vaguely along to its distant conclusion.
This story, ultimately, is incurably paceless. It alternates lazily between timelines until we arrive at the conflict at hand. Even after we do, it’s unclear what exactly we’re supposed to make of it. Or if it was worth the journey.
Because of that, despite its redeeming qualities, the entire movie rings hollow.
It’s always troubling to so harshly fault a film that gets so many things right. How could a movie as well-constructed as this, at least from a technical standpoint, remain so unsuccessful?
For reference, just ask “It.” And pray that Warner Brothers starts to invest more in its screenwriters and editors.
Rotten Tomatoes: 29%
Traveler Score: C-