Movie Review: “The Goldfinch” is Oscar-bait not taken

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“The Goldfinch” is a sprawling, ungainly but perfectly watchable mess of a movie, one of those novel adaptations where one wishes they’d taken the time to edit that beast into something tighter before the cameras rolled.

Director John Crowley (“Brooklyn”) & Co. treated Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel the way Warner Brothers treated the works of J.K. Rowling — as if they’d be pilloried for leaving ANYthing out.

But let’s blame Amazon Studios for that, in this case. A 2:24 running time picture fits the co-producing company’s streaming priorities, and they no doubt signed on with visions of Oscar nominations dancing in their heads.

The high-end sheen, the sparkling cast that includes Nicole Kidman, Jeffrey Wright, Luke Wilson and Sarah Paulson? That’s the Warners touch.

It’s a tale of loss and grief, guilt and regret, of longing and corruption and “You never know what’s going to change your future.”

And that “sheen?” It bubbles up as texture and subtext, a world of art and antiques, Beethoven and bespoke suits, all swirling around a tragedy at a museum where the 17th century painting by Carel Fabritius that gives the film its title once hung.

Tweenage Theo (Oakes Fegley of “Pete’s Dragon,” very impressive) is taken to the home of a family he once knew, because he can think of no one else after the shock. He was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother. An explosion killed her and many others, and as his one-time actor/father skipped town some time before, Theo’s at a loss.

The authorities make a compelling case to Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman), but one gets the sense she’d have said “Yes” in any event. There’s an old money remove about her, old money that married old money and wound up in an antiques-packed Manhattan townhouse with three children and an Upper Class Twit (“Do you sail, Theo?”) husband (Boyd Gaines). That doesn’t mean she lacks compassion.

Theo has night terrors and is wracked by guilt. His voice-over narration has told us “It was my fault,” and he believes it. But the Barbours indulge him, and he finds another father figure in the antiques restorer (Jeffrey Wright) whom he visits to deliver something another victim of the explosion begged him to pass on.

Hobie lives above the shop, and he’s taken in the ward of his now-dead partner. Theo remembers redheaded Pippa (Aimee Laurence) from the museum. Now, she’s recovering and they take comfort in each other’s company, even though they’re strangers.

We catch a glimpse of “bespoke suit” adult Theo (Ansel Elgort) long before the child Theo’s promising future comes undone as his Vegas hustler dad (Luke Wilson, in a nasty, layered turn) shows up, “51 days sober!” and with his new bartender wife (Sarah Paulson, brittle, blowsy and coarse). They spirit Theo from his world of cloistered privilege and private school to a city of foreclosures, lowlifes and public school, where he falls in with Ukranian transplant Boris (Finn Wolfhard).

The film’s middle acts, the “Vegas Years,” sketch in how Theo recovers from that and loops his way back to New York, back to antiques and back to Hobie and the Barbours.

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There are traces of “Great Expectations,” of the closed world of J.D. Salinger’s fiction, and of movies such as “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” and “Woman in Gold” in this film, all interesting ingredients in a film which alternately feels like a bloated feature film or a truncated mini-series.

Like director Crowley’s “Brooklyn,” the world portrayed here has the scale and melodrama of a Thackery novel, with many plot twists as obvious as a soap opera. I love the very literary device of suggesting how money knows money, and how everybody in the New York chapters is connected. And if you’re not a born member of that exclusive circle, you’re immediately under suspicion.

But there are unnecessary characters and scenes that don’t drive the narrative here. The big mystery at its heart doesn’t demand resolution, but we can’t have puzzles that aren’t solved, can we?

And the third act is as over-the-top as the first two are understated, which the characters remain even when great and terrible things are happening.

Some of us love being ensconced in a universe of Austenesque/”Antiques Roadshow” quiet and money, of finer things with history and beauty, where tweens can discuss Beethoven until their influences shift to the kid who knows what Vicodin and vodka will do to you, and wants somebody to take an acid trip with him.

We few, we not-easily-bored few, can catch “The Goldfinch” in a theater and revel in unerringly modulated performances — everybody is so softspoken that the verbal explosions have alarming violence about them — and a world we might envy, or at least resent a little bit.

Everybody else can wait to see it on a streaming service. I hear Prime is a good deal, so long as you use it to buy books and fine kitchenware, too.

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MPAA Rating:R for drug use and language

Cast: Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman, Jeffrey Wright, Luke Wilson, Sarah Paulson, Oakes Fegley, Ashleigh Cummings, Finn Wolfhard

Credits: Directed by John Crowley, script by Peter Straughan, based on the Donna Tartt novel . A Warner Brothers/Amazon Studios release.

Running time: 2:29

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