I know why the tethered goldfinch sits there

I may not know why the caged bird sings. But I sure as hell know why the tethered goldfinch just sits there staring at you. He’s pleading for help. Because if he didn’t have that chain on his ankle, he’d be off flying in search of a plot.

This is my review of the movie “The Goldfinch,” which I saw tonight with my long-suffering wife, who protests she likes the film. And I didn’t hate it. I just … didn’t get it. And I really, really wanted to. Because I really, really, really like movies that dare to be about art. And feelings. And feelings about art. And those were all things that this movie was supposed to be about. Or so I thought.

But was it? Yes. No. Maybe? I’m not sure. Yes, there was art involved, but could you feel it? A lot of things happened. And then more things happened. And among all this, there really should have been some kind of plot connecting them together, not to mention some greater meaning, but I kept wondering what it was supposed to be.

Flying blind

I am going to do my best to keep all this spoiler-free, but be warned, I have no idea what you might know or not. So if you have plans on seeing this and want to play it safe, head on out. Otherwise, I’ll take it for granted that most people know what the trailer has revealed: the film revolves around a boy, Theo, whose mother died in an explosion in an art museum, and somehow he ends up in possession of the painting “The Goldfinch” by Fabritius.

The Goldfinch, by Fabritius. I know how you felt, buddy.

Beyond that, what passes for a plot plods along for another two hours in a seeming endless procession of “this thing happened … and then that thing happened … and then guess what? This other thing happened.” Theo certainly is grieving his mother, but never once was there a hint that there was certain thing that Theo needed or wanted to do in order to cope with that grief. There was no goal in mind; no destination he was headed. And such is life for many of us much of the time, sure. But that doesn’t necessarily make for a great story.

It took about two hours into the two-and-a-half-hour-long movie for Theo to finally hit on the one thing he had to do. And when it got done, it was done off screen, and then only related in the final minute or two of the film in an expository explosion. OK what? How did that even happen?

Copy that for the theme. It was revealed in the next breath after the plot was unwound via a mass dumping of exposition. It, too, hits you on the head with with THIS IS WHAT IT ALL MEANS. And that was a blessing, really, otherwise I don’t think I would have known. I hope the book did a better job of spelling it out, but the clues just weren’t really in the movie. I can see how the elements were there, scattered like breadcrumbs by Hansel and Gretel in the forest, but it was like a flock of hungry goldfinches came and gobbled them up before I had a chance to really get a good look at them.

Meanwhile, things that seem like they should have been explained, aren’t. Like why did the museum explode — who did it and why? It might have been a critical matter, but it was the initiating event, dang it, and couldn’t someone just mention it in a sentence somewhere?

So much for plot that failed to soar and an obscured theme. Here’s the other great sin: it’s feelings didn’t go deep enough, either.

Now understand — I’m an inveterate movie theater crier. I’ve cried over the most ridiculous things in the movies. I’ve even cried in Marvel movies. Even in a “Guardians of the Galaxy” film. And I don’t even like action movies. It’s gotten so bad that sometimes my wife will turn in her seat to see if my face has gotten weepy just for the fun of it.

Boris (left, played by Finn Wolfhard) and Theo (played by Oakes Fegley). These two kids.

But “The Goldfinch”? It left my face dry. And this is a movie that had so many parents of children dropping dead that at one point I leaned over to my wife and whispered, “is this a Disney movie?” There were enough Big Issues here to fuel a lifetime’s worth of LifeTime movies and then enough more left over for a couple seasons of ABC After School Specials.

Yet for all this, I felt comfortably numb for the duration. I didn’t really feel any of Theo’s relationships, except for his friendship with Boris as a kid. And I think that’s largely a credit to the actor playing Boris, Finn Wolfhard. I also enjoyed Jeffrey Wright a great deal, but then, I always do — why don’t we see him more often?

The rest? Meh.

Flipping the ‘bird’

Now on a more personal note, what the heck? How does “The Goldfinch” dare to play loosey-goosey with things like history and location while I’m sitting here painstakingly researching things like exactly how many people died per day in an outbreak of the plague in Amsterdam in 1655? Or what kinds of flowers would have been in bloom in the Netherlands in September in the 1600s (note: not gladiolas or dahlias, those are imports that didn’t exist in Europe yet).

Sure, you might think it’s just nit-pickery, but it was actually disorienting. We just happen to be planning a trip to the Netherlands next year, and one of the things I’m most looking forward to is visiting the Mauritshuis in Den Haag, where the aforementioned painting The Goldfinch happens to be. So I happen to know it’s there, not New York (and has never been in the Met, though it was in a different gallery in New York in 2013, which is much later than this explosion was to have happened). The Mauritshuis is also home to The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, another painting said to be in the museum during the explosion, but as far as I know it has never been in New York.

Because I know about the Mauritshuis, logic told me the setting should have been Den Haag. But in the movie, Theo walked home to his apartment after the attack, and everything in the setting screamed New York. It wasn’t until I saw a phone book with the area code (212) that I knew for certain we were in New York City and not the Netherlands. This is why facts matter: because there’s going to be some annoying person out there who knows that those paintings belong in Den Haag, not New York; and the gladiolas belong in South Africa in the 1600s; and dahlias called Mexico home in the 17th Century. When you play fast and loose with facts, you risk confusing people and making them wonder if they can rely on anything else you say.

But here’s a consolation: Sometimes, as I consider my work-in-progress, I worry that my story might spend too much time developing my main character’s personality (which is fun stuff, I swear it) in the middle section before I get to the driving action later on. After seeing this film, which was based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, I’m much reassured. Because if Theo could wander around forever without knowing what he was doing until the very end, then my main is in pretty good shape.

My final quibble?

Behold: the superior American goldfinch. Untethered.

I have a bird feeder with thistle seed that attracts goldfinches.

That bird in the painting? It’s a European goldfinch, and they’re a poor imitation of the ones we have. Sorry, but it’s true. Come on, the European ones hardly have any yellow in them at all!

There, I said it.

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