I don’t know what this says about me, but there’s a particular stock character in Hollywood movies who I always wind up feeling sorry for – sometimes even more so than for the protagonist, as I did in the just-released “The Glass Castle.” It’s the “nice guy fiancé” role – you know, the heroine’s dream guy, who’s witty, devoted and charming, but who is destined to either be a) left literally at the altar, or b) given an impromptu off-the-cuff speech about values by the heroine, after Life Lessons about being yourself above all, dawn on her. Here, it’s Max Greenfield, who is witty, devoted and above all, quite rich, to whom Brie Larson is engaged as the film opens. However, she has not yet told her parents (Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts) who are currently squatting in an abandoned home in New York. By all measures, Max is perfect for Brie, a magazine columnist, for whom saying that she had a chaotic upbringing is like saying the Titanic sustained some water damage. In real life, this match would make it through the wedding, but because this is your typical movie, we know from the start that Brie’s issues will get in the way, and the collateral damage won’t be pretty.
“The Glass Castle” is based on the best-selling memoir by Jeannette Walls, and charts how she and her three siblings were dragged from pillar to post across the country, often hungry if not penniless, while her artist mother painted and her alcoholic father dreamed big dreams that never came to fruition because he, too, was tormented by demons. They lived in homes with no electricity or heat (when Jeannette’s older sister points this out, her dad responds, “Ignore her. She was born without vision.”) when they weren’t staying with Woody’s evil mother. But all this was temporary, according to Woody, because he was going to one day build the titular Glass Castle. At first, Jeannette (played as a girl by Ella Anderson) finds all these adventures thrilling and has the utmost faith that Daddy will come through; eventually, she realizes that she is being “parented” by incompetents and makes a pact with her siblings to stick together until they are old enough to escape. When they do manage to, their parents follow them to New York with their youngest sister. Neither Woody nor Naomi is thrilled to see their middle daughter embracing the bourgeois lifestyle. Eventually, Jeannette begins to have doubts, as well.
The movie includes most of the memorable scenes from the book: the opener when Jeannette burns herself badly enough to land in the hospital; the scene where the kids band together against Woody’s evil mother (for good cause), and one in which Woody repeatedly throws Jeannette into the water to “teach” her how to swim. This serves as the film’s central metaphor, which is pounded helpfully into the movie-goer’s cranium. The cast all does a decent job bringing the memoir to life, but those critics who have pointed out that the film tries to wrap up dysfunction with a pretty bow have a point.