‘The Goldfinch’ Review: Strictly for the Birds

Imagine you’re at a party — a fancy, catered thing with hors d’oeuvres floating by on trays and golden light suffusing a vast, elegant room. You run into someone you sort of know, maybe someone from college or an old job or who used to date a former roommate. Hey! What’s up? Clutching what must be the evening’s third or fourth glass of Champagne, this person excitedly tells you about staying up all night to finish “The Goldfinch,” by Donna Tartt, which is the most amazing book. Have you read it? No? So, see, the bird is actually a painting of a bird, and there’s this kid named Theo. …

Hours pass. Other people you recognize drift toward the conversation then, wisely, retreat from it. The light grows dim. The bar shimmers like a mirage on the horizon. Well-mannered soul that you are, you have nodded and smiled and tried to pay attention through various tangents and emendations as your friend leads you through a thousand pages worth of plot. (Oh but before he went to Amsterdam with the guy he knew from Nevada. …)

To be honest, it sounds kind of interesting. There are fake antiques (not like totally fake, but not strictly authentic either), drugs and drug dealers, terrorism and romance. (Because see the other girl, the one he’s engaged to, is the sister of the kid he lived with after his mother got killed in the bombing, and then her mother. …) Finally you are released into the night air, drained and bewildered, wondering what that was all about.

The above represents my attempt to convey to you, without taking up too much of your time — because we barely know each other and I see your eyes darting over to the review of the Jennifer Lopez stripper movie — what it’s like to watch “The Goldfinch,” John Crowley’s earnest and utterly flummoxing adaptation of Tartt’s 2013 book. I should say that I admire the novel, a best seller and a Pulitzer Prize winner, though not as much as I like Tartt’s others, “The Secret History” and “The Little Friend.” And it’s clear that Crowley (director of the lovely “Brooklyn”) and the film’s screenwriter, Peter Straughan (of the risible “Snowman”), also admire it. They just can’t, given two and a half hours of the viewer’s time, quite manage to explain why.

Theo, a New Yorker whose mother is killed by a bomb at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who goes to live with a patrician family on the Upper East Side and then with his no-account father in the Nevada desert, who befriends a furniture restorer and a Russian latchkey kid, who takes a lot of drugs and treasures the tiny 17th-century Dutch painting he snatched from the rubble at the Met, who attempts suicide in Amsterdam and occasionally resorts to voice-over, is played as a boy by Oakes Fegley and in early manhood by Ansel Elgort.

The younger version is said to look like Harry Potter — his Russian pal, Boris (Finn Wolfhard, then Aneurin Barnard), calls him Potter — but he put me more in mind of a miniature George Will. Grown-up Theo’s face is remarkably smooth. Does he never shave, I found myself wondering, or does he shave all the time?

There is much more to wonder about, beyond the basic what-why-and-how of the story. In many ways, “The Goldfinch” approximates what we normally think of as a movie. There are actors — some good ones, too, well known and less so. Nicole Kidman. Sarah Paulson. Jeffrey Wright. Denis O’Hare. Willa Fitzgerald. Ryan Foust. There is music. There is furniture. There are themes and feelings, like loss and grief and the love of beauty and the pleasures of taking drugs, smoking cigarettes and looking attractive. All at once and in succession.

But like those dodgy antiques — “changelings,” as their maker supposedly calls them — this film is inauthentic without being completely fake. It looks and sounds like a movie without quite being one. It’s more like a Pinterest page or a piece of fan art, the record of an enthusiasm that is, to the outside observer, indistinguishable from confusion.

The Goldfinch

Rated R. It takes a lot of drugs to get through this. Running time: 2 hours 29 minutes.

The Goldfinch

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A.O. Scott is the co-chief film critic. He joined The Times in 2000 and has written for the Book Review and The New York Times Magazine. He is also the author of “Better Living Through Criticism.” @aoscott

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