The Glass Castle (PG-13)
The next time your kids complain that you’re “mean” and “unfair” and that “There’s nothing good to eat,” sit them down with a bowl of unsalted, unbuttered, stale popcorn and have them watch “The Glass Castle.”
The movie is based on the best-selling and critically acclaimed 2005 memoir by Jeannette Walls. I read the book and recall marvelling at how Walls and her siblings survived neglectful, abusive parents, who moved constantly from one shack to another and didn’t seem to care that their children were hungry and didn’t go to school.
Not only did Walls survive her dysfunctional childhood, she thrived, moving to New York at 17, attending Barnard College on a scholarship and getting a job as a gossip columnist at New York Magazine, before writing “The Glass Castle” and a follow-up memoir. When the movie opens in 1989, we see successful Jeannette in a NYC cab, spotting her homeless parents Dumpster diving on the street. We flashback to Jeannette’s earliest memory when attempting to cook hotdogs for herself because her mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) doesn’t want to, she catches on fire and ends up in the hospital. Later her father Rex (Woody Harrelson), carries her out of her hospital room against doctor’s orders. She was three.
It doesn’t get any better. Rex lies, drinks, gets in fights, loses jobs and blows what little money the family has on booze. He designs and promises his family a “glass castle” but moves them to a house in West Virginia with no plumbing or electricity. Jeannette is supposedly his favorite. I guess that’s why he throws her into a pool to teach her to swim and drags her to a bar so he can use her as bait to beat someone at pool. What a guy! Meanwhile, Rose Mary goes along with everything, checking on her kids between painting landscapes.
I’d like to say that Jeannette’s miseries are exaggerated on screen, but sadly they’re not. The fact that she made her own braces out of wire is glossed over as a “Remember when…” at the end of the movie. What is a bit troublesome is the way the movie focuses so much on Jeannette’s relationship with her father at the expense of the other characters. We never really understand what motivated Rose Mary to become the person she is. Even more of an issue, while the film does make clear that the Walls siblings have a strong bond, it’s never really explained why and how they all ended up in New York City together. I also wish we could have seen more of the brother and sisters’ relationship with their parents, especially her tough older sister Lori.
Woody Harrelson delivers his typical spot-on, off-kilter performance as Rex, pretty much stealing the film from Oscar-winner Larson. The script allows him to be occasionally charming by showing him doing the occasional nice thing, but most of the time he’s basically a bad dude. Harrelson commits to every moment. Watts has less to work with and since we first see her telling her toddler to fix lunch for herself, resulting in that fire, it’s hard to appreciate her “free spirit.” All the young actors who play the Walls kids at various ages are excellent, especially Ella Anderson as the early-teenage Jeannette, whose eyes constantly reflect her disappointment and anger.
Unfortunately for Larson, adult Jeannette is not as interesting as young Jeannette. The screenplay is co-written by director Destin Daniel Cretton and it devotes too much time to Jeannette’s hiding her impending engagement from her father. Really? Your dad tried to drown you, starve you and stole your money and you care if he approves of your adoring, handsome fiancee? When the adult siblings get together toward the end of the movie, I still didn’t really understand their bond. And then there’s the feel-good finale, when you’re supposed to say, “Gee Rex wasn’t that bad a guy after all.” Huh?
I didn’t expect the film version of “The Glass Castle” to hit me like the book did, but the move to give Larson more to do by shifting the attention to adult Jeannette and the constant time jumping, takes you away from the more interesting story and makes the film feel disjointed. The story is so rich and real that it deserved a miniseries. If you haven’t read the book, please do. And if your children are being especially bratty, tell them you just picked up a great movie at Redbox.
The Glass Castle: 3 STARS