Review: Film Adaptation of The Goldfinch Loses Far Too Much in Translation

Oh, this one is shit. I don’t care how many Pulitzer Prizes the book (from author Donna Tartt) may have won or how critically acclaimed it is. This movie adaptation is an empty, spiritually vapid portrait of various characters I didn’t give a toss about and who can essentially be divided into two categories: privileged douches whose bad behavior is ignored because they have money or white-trash douches who are portrayed as something lesser than—almost like wild animals let loose in people’s houses—because they don’t have money.

The Goldfinch Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

And guess what I really don’t care about: a real-life painting called The Goldfinch by Dutch painter Carel Fabritius, who died in an explosion in 1654, the same year he painted the small, elegant work. In the film, the painting goes missing after a fictional terrorist attack in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (where it has never actually been displayed). The explosion kills dozens, including the mother of 13-year-old Theodore Decker (Oakes Fegley), who was away from his single mother so he could stare at a cute redhead also being taken around the museum. In the dusty aftermath, Theo grabs the painting, tucks it in his backpack, and, from that point forward, it is believed the painting was destroyed.

After the attack, Theo’s life is repeatedly turned upside down every couple of years, impacting his ability to get and remain close to people, with a few exceptions. And for two-and-a-half hours, we are dragged through his life into young adulthood as he meets new people, is separated from them, and then typically ends up being reunited with them years later. It's as if there are only about a dozen people in the whole world, so it seems implausible that he wouldn’t keep running into the same 12 people on both sides of the country.

The Goldfinch moves back and forth between Theo’s admittedly tough childhood and his life as a young man (played by Ansel Elgort), and it’s a toss-up for me to determine which timeline I cared about less. I think adult Theo might be slightly more tedious. Young Theo moves in with a school friend’s family, whose matriarch (Nicole Kidman) sees Theo as something to fill a great emptiness in her life. When his absentee father (Luke Wilson) shows up unexpectedly, he’s whisked off to a largely empty community filled with foreclosed homes in the Southwestern desert to live with dad and his gross girlfriend (an admittedly highly entertaining Sarah Paulson), both of whom turn out to be after money that they believe Theo has inherited from his mother.

The one friend he makes during this time in his life is a young Russian kid named Boris (Finn Wolfhard), but before long, Theo is forced to escape and head back to New York where he moves in with a furniture restorer named Hobie (Jeffrey Wright, probably the brightest light in this dismal work), whom he met shortly after the explosion for reasons I’m too bored to recount, and who cares? But Hobie is Theo’s gateway to adulthood, and while we don’t really see much of that transformation, we do see the end results in Elgort, who plays the character like an empty vessel, waiting for others to fill him up with experience in the fruitless hope of making him interesting. He has nothing behind his eyes, which is surprising since I’ve always found him interesting in works like Baby Driver and The Fault in Our Stars. But here, he just seems put upon without any real analysis given to why he seems to let the world happen to him with so little resistance.

Adapted by Peter Straughan and directed by John Crowley (Brooklyn), The Goldfinch gives us adult-sized versions of just about every child character, but none of them really leave an impression or distinguishes themselves in their performance. Aneurin Barnard’s portrayal of adult Boris is somewhat amusing because of who he’s become, but he leads Theo into a caper in the film’s final act that seems so out of place with the rest of this moody work that it’s like the filmmakers realized how boring this movie was going to turn out and decided to introduce a gun into the equation just to wake the audience up. It doesn’t work. The one tiny spark of sinister joy comes from Denis O’Hare as a mysterious man named Lucius Reeve, who hints that he knows that Theo stole the painting and he wants to buy it for a fraction of what it’s worth in exchange for not turning him over to the authorities. O’Hare’s performance stands out because he’s overplaying to such a degree that he makes everyone else in the film look like they’re standing still, making what he’s doing quite enjoyable.

Despite a few, brief sparks of greatness from O’Hare, Wright and Paulson, The Goldfinch is a flaccid, seemingly endless (I think my screening from Monday might still be playing), plodding work of faux intellectualism that never makes its point or gives us any real, tactile insight into its characters. If the point of the movie/book is to show us that people are vapid, then mission: accomplished. The one thing the story does make clear is that just because you live in New York doesn’t mean you live life better or deeper than the rest of the world. I can’t remember a time when I was happier than when I escaped the world of The Goldfinch.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.