Fact seems fictional in this trite drama.
Basing things on a true story only makes the story better if the story itself is so unbelievable that its truth generates shock. The cruelty of Fruitvale Station, the ego of Goodfellas, or the obsession of Zodiac. “Wow, those were real?” is the question audiences should be asking. The realism adds depth to the film and the world outside, sticking in the mind of viewers. The Glass Castle, based on Jeannette Walls’ memoir, remains as transparent and ethereal as the architectural wonder in its title because its treatment of its material is so rote.
A child faces poverty. Her parents – an alcoholic father (Woody Harrelson) and Stockholmed mother (Naomi Watts) – are negligent. Their circumstances change, as often happens with people near homelessness, but they almost always have a roof over their heads and paint for their mother’s still lifes. This girl, now a woman (Brie Larson), overcomes adversity, attending school and becoming a successful writer. Reality couldn’t get closer to a Hollywood formula. With its dramatic familiarity, done no favors by its inelegant time-hopping structure, The Glass Castle needs memorable characters or events to milk the tears and tickle the laughs from its audience. Instead, its story is full of anecdotes that always seem to fizzle out early and emotional confrontations that always prematurely decide that they’ve reached catharsis.
The film would be more interesting if it had a protagonist, but the central character of Walls (be she a child played by Chandler Head, a teen played by the excellent Ella Anderson, or an adult Larson) is never more than a conduit through which we experience her father. Rex, played by Harrelson for the thirty-four years between Walls’ birth and his death without the filmmakers again him beyond making his hairstyle more full and raggedy, is the romanticized, canonized star of the show. More hackneyed quotations pour from his mouth than whiskey pours in. When composer Joel P. West’s overwhelming strings stop swelling, we’re treated to a series of monologues that grate like a series of quotes over an Instagram picture of the Grand Canyon. Things like not clinging to the side of a pool your whole life, things that sound good to a kid. But the film never puts us in a child’s point of view, never allows us to buy into the magic of Harrelson’s bullshit salesman, so that we may be let down by him later.
Instead, he appears as an asshole too narcissistic to care for his family in any way but his own incompetent one and remains that way for the duration of the film, even before the escalation of his alcoholism. This is Harrelson’s second well-played dickhead of the year (Wilson), but the first of the year to be so adored by his surrounding characters. The narrative never fleshes out its leads, so the transition from child to adult in its many time hops doesn’t change anything for the viewer – it’s hard to feel differently about Rex just because Walls finally figured him out. This failure to establish a lens through which Rex is more than a drunk charlatan undermines the film’s insistence on his greatness. The whole film relies on the impact of a flawed man on his children, his unique brand of love being imperfect but unforgettable. It’s hard to buy, even though the end credits remind us with family photos of its reality.
The film’s innocuous smoothing of Walls’ stories means that anecdotes are clipped before they wander away from the PG-13 and any implication is spelled out with great pains. Scenes – now that they show merely the effects and not the causes, no efforts only the results – are the blunt stories of a cocktail party bore rather than the involved complexities that made the memoir a best seller. Everything has been dulled and underseasoned by writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton and his co-writer Andrew Lanham. After Cretton’s impressive Short Term 12, it’s shocking how little characterization or nuance goes into the film and its overwrought filmmaking (from the glowing light on Woody’s face to the out of place, sitcom-y delivery of the oddly-utilized Max Greenfield). Each moment of drama or darkness in the story is immediately rebuffed by an unearned updraft, forcing our hearts to be warmed like they were shoved in the microwave.
The film undercuts its potential drama at every turn. The most interesting part of the story – the “how” of how these kids (Walls and her siblings, so undeveloped that they haven’t warranted mentioning until now) escaped their homeless, negligent parents, went to school, and skipped town – is cut through without even the courtesy of a montage. One second we’re watching a teen who’s realized that her father is destroying her family to a smiling Brie Larson, taking photos of a high school football game.
The Glass Castle’s writing, its baffling story choices as much as its cliched dialogue (outside of the few famous lines from the book), stunts the family drama as badly as its failure to develop the family. That the film has the gall to explain its simple messages over and over again is as frustrating as the vapidity of those messages. Its hypocritical class critique, its insistence on making every experience an epiphany, its lackadaisical pacing — The Glass Castle makes a boring, generic drama out of a person’s life while her parents tried to make it anything but.