Diamonds in the Rough (DitR, /dɪ’tər/) takes some of the most derided, divisive, controversial, financially catastrophic, and meme-worthy movies and tries to find the silver lining. Bad movies don’t always start as bad ideas, and flops aren’t always flop-worthy. DitR seeks to find the good within the bad, because the world could use some positivity. And when all else fails, making fun of bad movies is oh-so satisfying.
In this installment, we look at the adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch from director John Crowley (Brooklyn, Boy A).
[Normally, Diamonds in the Rough reviews go into full spoiler territory, but this one does not. This is a spoiler-free review of The Goldfinch]
- Rotten Tomatoes: 24% (214 reviews) | 72% (1,404 user ratings)
- Metacritic: 40 (41 reviews) | 6.9/10 (71 user ratings)
- IMDb: 6.2/10 (11,396 ratings)
- Letterboxd: 2.9/5 (15,048 ratings)
Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch proved massively successful in 2013. The novel spent numerous weeks on bestsellers lists and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. As with any profitable novel whose title becomes generally recognizable even to those who have never read it, it was no surprise when the book was optioned and developed into a film.
The surprise came when Warner Bros.’ 2019 adaptation released to universal…silence. The film took a huge financial hit, grossing just north of $9 million worldwide during its theatrical run on a $45 million production budget. By its third week in theaters, the theater count for the film had dropped precipitously from 2,542 screens to 442 screens. Within a month, the film was all but out of theaters entirely. Business Insider’s Travis Clark declared the film to be the “biggest box-office flop of the year .”
If that wasn’t enough, the critics lambasted the film. Much of this criticism, though, stretches back to the source material. For all of its accolades—best-seller status, Pulitzer Prize, and all—the novel reportedly created a factional critical response. Some critics were shocked and disappointed to see the book take the Pulitzer.
Like the majority of the world, I skipped out on The Goldfinch during its September 2019 release (and I call myself a film critic). Similarly, I completely bypassed the buzz around the novel, and I have not so much as picked the book up, let alone read any of it. Now that the film is available to stream through Amazon Prime, and I find myself with an inordinate amount of free time on my hands, I figured I would give it a shot. And I would argue that there is more than enough good material in the film to give it the Diamonds in the Rough treatment—albeit, it is still a flawed film in many ways.
To set the stage, Constance Grady at Vox wrote a smart and succinct overview of what makes The Goldfinch a bad movie, and her argument is that it is because is comes from a fairly bad book. The debate over the source material’s quality stems all the way back to the book’s emergence as a best seller. Vanity Fair positions this debate as one of the most important literary squabbles of the 21st century: “[The book has] gotten some of the severest pans in memory from the country’s most important critics and sparked a full-on debate in which the naysayers believe that nothing less is at stake than the future of reading itself.”
These two articles summarize the criticisms of the novel. Grady calls it a “thematically empty book filled with hollow, psychologically empty characters” which “suffocates under the sheer weight of its 771 pages.” The Vanity Fair article, paraphrasing James Wood of The New Yorker, says that the book is “stuffed with relentless, far-fetched plotting; cloying stock characters; and an overwrought message tacked on at the end as a plea for seriousness.” While positive critiques heralded The Goldfinch as “Dickensian,” Lorin Stein at The Paris Review claimed it dealt mainly in cliches.
These crucial concerns certainly translate to the film. While Crowley and veteran DP Roger Deakins occasionally do something beautiful with the camera—I love how the flashbacks to the museum bombing look, despite those flashbacks being insanely overused—most of the scenes are locked down shot-reverse shot conversations. In this sense, the movie looks like a book put on screen in the most traditional manner. As such, it relies on the content of the book to be effective, and that content has to be stellar to draw in an audience for two hours and 30 minutes.
The film does deal in stock characters, coincidental plotting, and cliche messaging. This is all true. Plot turns that may be considered passable on the page (or not, according to the detractors of the book) read like contrivances on the screen. Characters popping back into the narrative at crucial moments read far too pat, and the workmanlike construction of this narrative can make everything come off as emotionally distanced. The ultimate message of the book is translated onto the film in an overly saccharine manner. The end of the film is characterized by overwrought musical flourishes on the soundtrack (I can’t fault the score here, as it is quite beautiful, but it is used rather ineffectively). Ultimately, there is something cloying in the bones of The Goldfinch that makes it easy to push back against it.
However, there are also pieces that work well on the screen. The acting, for one, is quite effective in portraying what is admittedly an overwrought narrative. The exception might be Nicole Kidman, whose entire performance consists of stony or pensive looks. But the two actors portraying protagonist Theo Decker do a fairly great job of illustrating the character’s arc with two understated yet distinct performances. Oakes Fegley, in particular, does the bulk of this work, portraying the young Theo through the formative moments in the character’s life. By the time we get to Ansel Elgort’s adult Theo, the character is subdued and morose to a fault. But Elgort plays this one-note person as an extension of Fegley’s performance. The film does a fairly good job of illustrating how young Theo comes to be adult Theo, and the two actors take on that arc in a relatively compelling way.
As workmanlike as the film may feel, it is beneficial to pacing to have the story beats drop in what feels almost like a lock-step rhythm. Characters are introduced and reintroduced in convenient ways, but there is a good sense of timing to it all. And the transitions between sequences featuring young Theo and those featuring adult Theo feel rather seamless (again, a large part of this has to do with these dual lead performances). That Theo is surrounded by flattened characters who function mainly as story devices in his life story is a huge detriment to the film, as it contributes to that feeling of hollowness. The story comes off as emotionally muted, when the film is presenting the story as though it were some sort of emotional epiphany. That said, the narrative construction does move the film along at a watchable pace, as languid as that pace may be.
Ultimately, I think the mileage one gets out of The Goldfinch film is determined by whether these positive elements outweigh the detrimental ones. The problems, whether they stem from the source material or not, overburden the already overstuffed film. If nothing else, patience is required for those watching who are not already invested fans of the book. However, I do not think that the film deserves the stigmatization that comes with descriptors like “critically panned” and “box office flop,” even though those descriptors are accurate. In my honest opinion, I think the film is quite average, the type of film I believe readers of the book would enjoy far more than I did.
Generally, Diamonds in the Rough installments come with some thesis statement, from which I attempt (sometimes foolish) persuasive arguments attesting to a film’s quality. In this case, I am not going to make any claims to The Goldfinch having “hidden gem” status, nor am I going to say that critics got the film wrong. Frankly, neither of those claims are particularly true. That said, the film still fits into the admittedly abstract parameters of this series. It is a film that is rough in more places than merely its edges, but one can mine its unwieldy runtime for gems. It is not a film I can confidently recommend to everyone, but it is certainly better than the label “biggest box-office flop [of 2019]” might suggest.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)