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The Glass Castle (2017)
Directed by: Destin Daniel Cretton
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Brie Larson, Naomi Watts, Ella Anderson, Sarah Snook, Max Greenfield
Rated: PG-13 for Mature Thematic Content Involving Family Dysfunction, and For Some Language and Smoking
Running Time: 2 h 7 m
TMM Score: 2 stars out of 5
WEAKNESSES: Overly Sentimental, Betrays the Spirit of the Memoir
Based on the memoirs of Jeanette Walls, The Glass Castle tells the story of a family living in poverty and dysfunction.
This last week I finished reading Jeannette Walls’ ‘The Glass Castle’, a book I’ve been told for years I should read, and now I’m telling you, dear reader: whoever you are, whatever your story is, please read ‘The Glass Castle’.
Jeanette Walls’s ‘The Glass Castle’ is a wonder of a book. It tells the bittersweet story of Jeanette’s youth, living in the deserts of California and then in the mountains of Welch, West Virginia under the care of her alcoholic father and vagabond mother. The story is at times beautiful, tragic, disturbing, heartbreaking, hopeful, and triumphant… It is a story that deserves far, far better than this…
“It’s the Joshua Tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.”
I feel like it does no good to really describe the plot of this film as really it’s just about Jeanette’s life as she tries to figure out how she fits into it. If I were to detail what trials and tribulations Jeanette lives it would spoil this mediocre film and that wonderful book. So, lets just get into it then.
First and foremost, having read the book, I can’t say for certain how those who haven’t read the book would feel about this film, but I have an idea. There are a lot of fictional dysfunctional/coming of age stories out there, and there are also a lot of true stories that deal with the same topic- I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re a dime a dozen, but they’re pretty common. When I watch/read a story about this topic it needs to grip me with how visceral it is; you can’t sugarcoat things in stories like this because it weakens the impact of how horrible the bad times were, and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, how great things were other times.
I feel like this film underestimates its viewer. It doesn’t expect them to grasp the subtlety in each scene, so it takes the time to spell out things for you. There are parts of the movie where it feels like the writer almost explicitly says things like, “It isn’t good that the Walls haven’t been eating. It isn’t good that Rex Walls keeps drinking. It isn’t good that Rose Mary Walls doesn’t want to get a job.” Give the viewer some credit, they pick up on more subtlety than you ‘d expect.
Another issue I had with this film is it played up the dramatic elements to the point where this film felt like any other run of the mill story. There are dozens of fake coming of age stories with huge fights in public, venom-filled ultimatums, and shining moments of redemption, but real life isn’t like that, is it? Real life is a lot more painful, a lot messier, and also infinitely more beautiful. This film tries to dramatize an already very dramatic book, and it ends up coming off as hokey and cheesy, almost cringe-worthy at times. I found myself angrily shouting, “What is this?” at the television.
There are many parts of the book that make it into the movie, but it seems the scenes they chose to include were only pale shadows of what they should’ve been. The problem is a lot of the scenes, even if they are lifted directly from the book, are misplaced or contextualized in a different way, making it so that certain scenes actually conveyed different meanings. As a reader of the book I found this impossible to ignore, and I grew increasingly irritated. I felt as if a lot of scenes from the movie actually betrayed the characterizations spelled out in the book, and a few very important details were left out as well. In the end, I felt like this was a Frankenstein’s Monster of what the film could’ve been. Most of the parts were there, but they were cut up and sewn back together in a haphazard fashion, and the result is a shambling corpse of a film.
There are some good aspects. Woody Harrelson (“The Thin Red Line”) is a perfect Rex Walls. Naomi Watts (“King Kong”) does a fine job as Rose Mary Walls. I feel like Brie Larson (“Captain Marvel”) wasn’t a great pick for Jeanette, but I feel like a lot of that wasn’t her fault either. Many of her scenes were the most dramatic ones, and coincidentally, they were also the scenes that didn’t happen in the book. Brie’s scenes were used as a framing device for flashbacks, and oftentimes her scene felt completely unnecessary and they brought a screeching halt to the pace of the story. Why did they continuously flash forward when it didn’t add anything to the movie? Probably because Brie Larson had just won Best Actress (for “Room”) and they wanted to write her into the movie more. I felt like her scenes were constantly too dramatic and too unbelievable to elicit any kind of emotional response from me, instead I kept scoffing in annoyance.
It’s rare that I do this, but I am actually pleading with you not to see this movie. Usually, if a movie is bad, I forget about it and continue on with my life, but this movie takes something truly special and tarnishes it. As a standalone story, this movie is nothing- not so bad it’s offensive, but it’s not good enough to be remotely memorable. Please, don’t see this movie; read the book. If you don’t have the gumption to read the book, then just avoid this story altogether. It’s a marvelous tale, but it deserves to be experienced through Jeanette’s own words.
I also know this is a movie blog, not a book blog, so my chances of convincing you to pick up that book are slim. Still, I have to try.
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