I have a rule when it comes to films based on novels: if the book is considered a classic piece of literature, I always read it before watching the movie; if the novel is contemporary or less than 50 years old at least, then I watch the movie first and, based on that assessment, then check out the novel afterwards. Jeannette Walls' 2005 memoir The Glass Castle spent a whopping 261 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, yet I probably would never even knew it existed were it not for director Destin Daniel Cretton's adaptation reuniting him with Oscar darling Brie Larson, who deservedly won Best Actress for Room. While Larson had already played plum roles in hits like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and 21 Jump Street, it was Cretton's Short Term 12 (2013) which was a crowd-pleasing sensation a the SXSW film festival, winning both the Narrative Audience and Grand Jury awards; in that film, Larson played a young woman juggling love and pregnancy while being devoted to her work at a facility for troubled youth. With Short Term 12 and Room, Brie Larson immediately entered my list of favorite actresses to look out for in all future productions and I finally managed to catch her 2017 releases, which included Kong: Skull Island and The Glass Castle. Armed with a strong cast and similar notes from the previous Cretton-Larson collaboration, The Glass Castle was a critical and commercial flop, yet that didn't stop me from checking it out on Blu-ray considering its pedigree.
Based on the true story of author Jeannette Walls' childhood: her strikingly dysfunctional family is led by drunken patriarch Rex, submissive wife Rose Mary who fancies herself an artist, and siblings Lori, Brian and Maureen. Rex is a sharp-minded outcast who drags his family across the country yet his fatherly skills always seemed to compromised by his own narrow views of society and, of course, the bottle. Rose Mary, while fully aware of Rex's damaging eccentricities and insecurities, can't bring herself to leave him, while also being equally flawed when it comes to parental responsibility, resulting in the family being chased by creditors. Eventually, the family movies to West Virginia to be closer to Rex's parents, which seems to be source of more than a few demons; Rex's favorite child seems to be Jeannette, whom he dubs Mountain Goat. These childhood sequences from the 1960s are spliced with events taking place in 1989, where Jeannette has become a successful gossip columnist, while her parents are homeless, squatting in an abandoned apartment building after following her to New York. What Jeannette dreads is getting married to a Wall Street financial analyst whom she loves but knows full well he is the exact opposite of what the unstable Rex would accept as a son-in-law. If The Glass Castle sounds like a billion Lifetime television movies given a theatrical polish complete with A-list movie stars, then you would be 100% right.
Before I put on my cynical cap, let me first confess that The Glass Castle kept my attention for the majority of its running time but when the past and present finally merge at the end it not only failed to bring tears to my eyes (which is all too obviously the film's overall goal), but I was left thoroughly unmoved, even disillusioned. With all due respect to Walls, her story of growing up with her family is no different than a thousand stories already told (both on Lifetime and off) and, as a memoir, there was simply nothing special to either the dynamics or the execution. Sure, it's impossible not to be affected by the fact the kids are living in poverty and must deal with parents who have no business “raising” them, yet it's also hard to generate empathy when we barely get to know Jeannette's siblings while the film pushes a sympathetic view of the parents! I can imagine the novel's readers were able to identify Jeannette's pain and domestic hardships, and thus it struck a chord with those who have families with the exact same demons, both literal and psychological. The biggest problem with The Glass Castle lies with the surrounding 1989 moat, which is way over-emphasized dramatically and always seem to compromise the 1960s sequences and weigh down the narrative as a whole. The raw power of Cretton's Short Term 12 is inexplicably missing despite his ostensibly passionate devotion to the source material which is alarmingly conventional and, sorry to say, dramatically clichéd in every respect. In the end, The Glass Castle ironically turns out to be much too fragile, garnering major cracks from top to bottom, with the cast the only thing preventing it from shattering to a million pieces.
This has been a truly amazing year for the actor Woody Harrelson: not only did he make his writing/directing debut with Lost in London (which has the dubious distinction of being the very first film broadcast live in theaters), but he also received nothing but praise for playing President Lyndon B. Johnson in LBJ, the insane Colonel in War for the Planet of the Apes and a probable Oscar nomination for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Woody gives the best performance in The Glass Castle as Rex although the lousy make-up isn't doing the actor any favors; even when the film is at its most melodramatic and emotionally nonexistent, Harrelson still manages to impress and stay committed to this admittedly complicated character, even if he is an unsympathetic and borderline hateful father. Naomi Watts, while frustratingly limited in her screen-time, also does well as the mother, but Brie Larson's performance runs hot-and-cold, surprisingly enough; the coldness is inherent in 1989, particularly when Walls comes off like a materialistic, expressionless statue; while the Mountain Goat is trying to break free and run away from the family in the 1970s, however, Larson is excellent. Next to Harrelson, the biggest acting honors must go to all of the children who play the Wells' siblings at various ages, particularly Ella Anderson and Chandler Head as younger versions of Jeanette.
- BLU-RAY EXTRAS & SPECS -
As mediocre as The Glass Castle is, the Blu-ray courtesy of Lionsgate is rock-solid and should satisfy both fans of the movie and Walls' memoir. Presented in 2.40:1 widescreen and 1080p resolution, The Glass Castle, the colors are somewhat muted but the details are quite sharp throughout, but there is nothing mesmerizing on display here from a visual perspective. Same can be said for the the audio, which is, for the most part, reference quality with the Dolby TrueHD 7.1 serving the music score and dialogue quite well. Also included is a 5.1 Spanish track, along with English & Spanish subtitles; Lionsgate also provides a separate DVD and digital copies. Special features are generous and should provide plenty for fans to swim through: the meatiest is a better-than-average, 26-minute featurette “From Memoir to Movie” containing interviews with all of the principal players, including writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton and Jeanette Walls herself. There is also a separate, 15-minute interview with Walls, who continues to pimp her story and memoir; she said it took the latter five years to write, and she deemed the first draft too shallow, although I have a feeling there is still a shallowness inherent in the narrative as the adaptation seems to reflect. Rounding out the bonus material are nearly 10 minutes of deleted scenes and two mini-featurettes devoted to the score and the song “Summer Storm,” both written by Joel P. West and among the film's few virtues. Still, I cannot recommend The Glass Castle and have absolutely no intention of ever reading the book; I would advise readers to check out Short Term 12, the superior Cretton-Larson collaboration, instead.
- ABOUT THE AUTHOR -
Stone Gasman has been addicted to cinema ever since he was a child, becoming hooked on Chaplin, Hitchcock and Wilder by the time he was 10 years old. The film which changed his life was The Best Years of Our Lives, the 1946 winner for Best Picture and eight additional Oscars, which ultimately inspired him to join the US Navy. He is now a disabled veteran residing in New York City.