"The medium is the message," Marshall McLuhan famously proclaimed. Rarely have those words rung truer than during the eternity it took to slog through The Glass Castle.
Directed and cowritten by Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) and based on the highly regarded 2005 memoir by Jeannette Walls, this is another of those movies about colorful anti-establishment parents who raise their offspring to question society's rules while practically ruining their lives in the process. If the reckless behavior and child endangerment it depicts were the subject of a TMZ report, somebody would be going to jail. But since it's the subject of a meandering, overly sentimental Hollywood weepie, no such luck.
Brie Larson is a terrible talent to waste. But that's precisely what happens here, as she portrays Walls primarily at a point in the '80s when she'd escaped her parents and become a celebrated gossip columnist for New York magazine. Cretton takes a Cuisinart to the source material, intercutting scenes of her appalling, impoverished childhood with others from her young adulthood as a member of Manhattan society.
Making that childhood a living hell were her alcoholic father, Rex, played by Woody Harrelson in bellicose hillbilly mode; and flaky artist mother, Rose Mary, whom Naomi Watts never quite succeeds in bringing into focus. In much the same spirit as last year's Captain Fantastic, the film offers a portrait of a family living off the grid, repeatedly packing up and moving in the dead of night, while generally marching to the beat of its know-it-all patriarch.
Walls grew up with two sisters and a brother. Her book documents countless acts of negligence and outright cruelty endured by the children, including prolonged intervals of malnourishment and hunger. At one point, a 3-year-old Jeannette is left to cook for herself and is literally scarred for life when her dress catches fire. Cretton rewrites history, making her older so as not to put his twinkly feel-good finale too much at risk.
In another scene, Jeannette and her siblings make a meal of a stick of butter covered with sugar, the only food in the home, which also lacked electricity and running water. Meanwhile, Rose Mary obliviously paints canvas after canvas (the film provides no appraisal of her work) and never says a word when Rex disappears on drinking binges for days at a time.
The movie, by contrast, focuses on the more fanciful aspects of Rex's parenting style. When the kids' birthdays roll around, for example, he lets them pick a star and "gives" it to them as a present. Then there's the eponymous edifice. Talk about belabored metaphors. Again and again, Rex is shown hunched over a table in the middle of the night, bottle on one side, blueprints for Never Gonna Happen Palace on the other, as he makes meaningless tweaks and deluded doodles.
The Glass Castle, to be charitable, represents a career low for all involved. An insult to Walls' memoir, Cretton's script manipulates events and perceptions for the purpose of concluding on a preposterous note of celebration.
You know, of Rex's free spirit. His bohemian refusal to play by the rules. His poetic, childlike nature. The filmmaker insults the viewer's intelligence by suddenly soft-pedaling the character's sins after spending two hours attempting to convince us he's the devil. For that and a hundred other reasons, the film, too, is a meaningless tweak; a long, self-indulgent and incredibly deluded doodle.