'The Glass Castle'
‘The Glass Castle’ is a nice movie that means well and has ambition. It’s also such a naked attempt at awards-grabbing self-importance that it’s hard to take as seriously as the filmmakers desire. The summer might not be over, but this is the first mediocre Oscar-bait release of prestige movie season.
Brie Larson stars as Jeannette, a New York gossip columnist and socialite forced to come to terms with her past. She grew up in a strange family led by a flaky artist mother (Naomi Watts) and an alcoholic dreamer (Woody Harrelson). The children never went to school until their teens, but the bright parents taught them quite a lot while squatting in various abandoned homes and generally avoiding responsibility. What initially felt like an extended summer vacation quickly went sour once the manic-depressive and manipulative father started hitting the bottle and falling through on his endless array of promises. We see the whole sordid childhood play out in flashback while Jeannette gradually learns to accept her past and who she is. In other words, it’s just like last year’s ‘Captain Fantastic‘, only with emotional abuse and boozing montages.
It’s hard to imagine that director Destin Daniel Cretton and his team were thrilled when they saw ‘Captain Fantastic’ somewhere in the middle of this film’s production last summer. That movie explored a similarly erratic father and “off the grid” family upbringing with far more nuance and less obvious moralizing. This one is essentially a remake with all the themes screeched as loudly as possible in the screenplay and shot with maximum manipulative impact. The strange thing is that it’s based on an autobiographical novel by Jeannette Walls and made by the director of ‘Short Term 12’, so it shouldn’t have turned out that way. The story shouldn’t feel so heightened given that it happened and Cretton’s background in painfully truthful drama should have steered him clear of melodramatic traps. Somehow, the movie hits so many obvious broken family drama beats that it’s a shock when a home movie montage at the end reveals the reality of the fiction that came before. Maybe something was lost in the adaptation from the book.
Of course, it’s not all bad. The movie has a handful of beautifully observed scenes with aching family pain and unexpectedly naturalistic comedy. Woody Harrelson is also brilliant as the troubled patriarch too smart and damaged for his own good. The actor walks a tightrope of empathy and engagement, leaving viewers as uncertain which version of the character will emerge. Naomi Watts does an impressive job of grounding an almost impossibly naïve character through subtle neurosis. Brie Larson does her journey of discovery as well as can be expected. The entire cast is impressive, and even the faded slideshow cinematography has a melancholic beauty. ‘The Glass Castle’ is well-made schmaltz, but schmaltz nonetheless.
Perhaps there was once a far more layered and challenging edit or script that got watered down for mass consumption. Or perhaps Cretton and his writing partner Andrew Lanham just weren’t able to condense the book down to a screenplay without succumbing to trite convention. Regardless, the final film ricochets from stirring drama to gag-worthy melodrama enough to give most viewers whiplash. It’s not a complete failure, but far from a success. With a movie this ambitious hoping to tackle big issues and move viewers mightily, that’s a problem. ‘The Glass Castle’ has enough strong performances and scenes to make it a passable watch when stumbled into by accident, but no one should actively seek it out other than those who love Woody Harrelson more than their free time.