By Kyle Barr
“The Glass Castle” is wholly transparent, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. You can see all the hard work that the cast put into the film, but its Hollywood drama sensibilities also show straight through. While a number of the cast put up a good fight, the movie is brought down by a script that feels awkward and, at times, rather dumb.
The film flips between Jeannette Walls as a young girl (Ella Anderson) and as an adult (Brie Larson). Her childhood is spent growing up in poverty with her parents, Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) and Rex (Woody Harrelson) and siblings.
The family spends its early years traveling aimlessly around the country before eventually settling in Welch, West Virginia. Jeannette’s mother is an eccentric and absent-minded artist and her father is an alcoholic yet imaginative man whose dream is to settle on a piece of land and build his dream house, his “Glass Castle,” for his family.
The second time line is of Jeannette as an adult working as a gossip writer for New York Magazine. Her parents show up yet again to complicate things just as she gets engaged and plans to get married.
It is this dual structure to the film that drags the plot, mostly because the scenes set in New York are just so much more dull and tiring than those set in the past. Jeannette’s plight of trying to get married to New York Wall Street broker David (Max Greenfield) is not only doddering in pace, but it also grows incredibly annoying. David barely has a personality, and seemingly his only purpose is to grow Jeanette’s anxiety about marrying him. He’s so worthless apparently Destin Cretton, the director who also wrote the script, didn’t bother to give him a last name.
In this setting Larson does not seem to be trying either. For a character whose main conflict appears to be between her old, adventurous personality and her new, humdrum but stable life, she never appears to ever show that conflict. And no, staring out the window with a forlorn expression does not count.
The past events give a much stronger impression, and it could be Harrelson’s performance that allows the character to be grounded even when the script makes him say some really eyebrow-raising lines. His rampant and passionate performance complements the rest of the cast, with even the younger performers of two separate ages putting in a strong effort.
The major problem with the film is that it feels like the entire thing was doused in Windex, then wiped and scrubbed flat. Everything that could have been gritty, like Rex’s alcoholism and Jeannette almost being raped as a young adult, feel so washed out and edgeless it’s sometimes hard to forgive the film. Then there are moments of whimsy and heart, like that of the older Jeannette sitting by her father’s sickbed that just reek with obvious and dull dialogue that you can easily find in a soap opera, much less a major Hollywood drama.
There are genuine attempts at both the gritty and the whimsy. Once in a while a scene might hit the mark, like when on Christmas Day Rex gives young Jeannette the pick of any star she wants in the night sky. However, there is a consistent feeling that there was a better movie here, somewhere buried underneath the poor dialogue and strange plot developments. In fact, if one is really interested in the story, the memoir written by Jeannette Walls can be a great read. Otherwise, it’s hard to recommend the film for anyone who isn’t already a huge fan of the autobiography.
“The Glass Castle,” rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, language and smoking, is now playing in local theaters.
Photos by Jake Giles Netter, courtesy of Lionsgate Publicity