The new arthouse movie “The Goldfinch” begins with an imitation of the famous first line of “Rebecca”: “Last night I dreamt that I went to Manderley again.” And then the film shows you Nicole Kidman and you think, “Golly, she looks as good as she did in ‘Dead Calm,’ 30 YEARS AGO.”
And from then on the going in “The Goldfinch” is just about all downhill. Mind the wild and strange ways characters die — and a lot of them do die. And those that don’t die break somebody’s heart.
Or, even worse, they taunt someone for no apparent reason. Consider this example: the story’s anti-hero, Theo (the adult version of whom is played by Ansel Elgort) is in New York having lunch with a client of his. The man begins to go almost red in the face as he taunts Theo over repairs that had been made to antique furniture the man bought from him.
Moreover, angry and spiteful, he insists that Theo must have the movie’s title item, a Dutch “master’s” picture that was supposedly destroyed during the bombing of an art museum. The client has reason to believe the painting was used as collateral in a Miami illegal-drug deal. And the client just KNOWS Theo has the painting because he was in the museum when it was bombed.
None of this makes sense, at least in the movie. But what is oddest about it is the client’s intense snottiness. And he’s trying to set up a purchase.
Now the movie isn’t always this bafflingly unreal. But its dramatic details, and there are more than a few, are always hyped too much. This is one of the film’s problems. After that opening voice-over narration that refers to the Olivier movie, there isn’t continuing narration.
Drama for its own sake. Then lose the device.
Theo was a high school kid when his mother took him to the museum. She showed him “The Goldfinch” (a painting with its own over-the-top history). Then he turned his head and she slipped away. She was apparently dead and covered in white ash when he, deafened by the bomb blast, awoke to a scene of carnage.
The film likes to slip back and forth in time, which causes some problems for the viewer (which “foster brother” of Theo’s is the one who approaches him in the street?). But it also means that we get the resolution of the story’s central mystery — how did Theo end up with the painting? — about halfway through the film when his memory finally comes back.
This occurs about when he is passed from the Barbours (a schoolmate’s family who takes him in after his mother’s death) to his manic gambler father (Luke Wilson). Suddenly he remembers meeting Blackwell right after the blast. The man was dying.
He gave Theo a ring to give to his partner in an antique-furniture business and insisted Theo take the painting out of the museum. He didn’t have Theo find his niece Pippa. She has been injured in the blast and has — get this — lost her ability to ever play music ever again. As an adult, incidentally, she is played by Ashleigh Cummings, the Aussie actress who plays Dot in “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.”
Delivering the ring gets Theo an in with Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), who teaches him a little about old furniture and helps him to see Pippa, with whom Theo seems to fall in love. If he does, the relationship is star-crossed — there is no other way to explain why it doesn’t develop.
Instead, once he has run away from Nevada to NYC, he romances the Barbour family’s perfidious daughter. This is after two family members have drowned.
Theo has one other significant relationship. While living in the Las Vegas housing tract from the remake of “Fright Night,” he meets Boris (Finn Wolfhard).
At odds with their fathers and their surroundings, they experiment with drugs. In fact, Theo seems to be doing drugs during a good part of the picture.
Put all these components together and one gets a movie that could end any time after its halfway mark. A frustrating movie. Its makers take a last shot at giving it a single meaning by having older Boris announce that good comes out of bad.
How’s that for a message?