In his novel “Anna Karenina,” Leo Tolstoy writes: “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” That would have made a good opening line for Jeannette Walls’ 2005 memoir “The Glass Castle,” in which the gossip columnist for New York magazine and MSNBC described her abnormal childhood of rural poverty, decrepit shacks, parental dysfunction, struggle and survival. It was a breakout bestseller.
Now “The Glass Castle” has become an honest-but-flawed misfire of a movie from director Destin Daniel Cretton.
Starring Brie Larson as Jeannette, Woody Harrelson as her irrational father and Naomi Watts as her codependent mother, it recreates Walls’ chaotic experiences in erratic ways that feel sad, sweet and cloyingly saccharine. It tells her true story while hitting awkward false notes in matters of performance, story structure, even body language and costuming.
The story begins in the late 1980s. We meet the adult Jeannette dining out with her fiancé David (Max Greenfield), a rising star in New York City’s financial world, and another couple from high social circles. Jeannette is outfitted in an austere white ensemble, the costume of a woman projecting authority through power dressing. She has reached the upper echelons of Manhattan life, and she clearly intends to remain there by any means necessary.
Perhaps that explains her controlling relationship with meek, doting David. He gazes at her like a treasure just beyond his reach. In contrast to Larson’s reserve, Greenfield plays David with a nervous grin that could be seen from space. Before the first scenes fade, we’re wondering: Has Jeannette really achieved the supposed American dream or just become another faceless drone in a suit?
The cab ride home brings Jeannette beside her shabby, estranged parents as they rummage through street trash. Her self-absorbed mother doesn’t realize Jeannette is slowly passing. Her father, a cranky drunk, sees her and gives the taxi an angry kick. That chance encounter triggers two hours of flashbacks crossing decades and fitful tonal shifts from her troubled adulthood to the turbulent love connections, including the one with her unfit but not unloving parents.
Harrelson portrays her Pied Piper father at full steam just short of scenery chewing. As his wife and accomplice, Watts brings a cheerful pathos to this would-be artist who would rather paint an imaginary paradise than face the demands of the real world. If she has canvas and pigment to slap on it, feeding her starving children is a pointless interruption.
There are valuable insights here. But the anti-chronological structure, its choice to omit other damaging information about the real Walls family, and its unswerving commitment to a feel-good finale overwhelm its virtues. The film ends with glimpses of home movies of the real Wells family, a truer story that could have made a higher quality documentary.