I went to the movies on Friday night. Surrounded by friends in just the right mood, and a bit buzzed, I sat down to a 7:45pm screening of Winter’s Tale. And you know what? I had a fantastic time.
It’s terrible, of course. Akiva Goldsman’s directorial debut isn’t so much a train wreck as it is the colliding of planets, à la Melancholia. This apparently genuine attempt at epic, magical romance is the most spectacular disaster I have seen in a long, long time. Nothing works. The plot doesn’t make any sense, the actors all seem to be performing in different movies, and it is blissfully unaware of its own silliness. If I had to smack a label on it, I’d call it the perfect midnight movie. But what does that actually mean?
Winter’s Tale is a great example of why “so bad it’s good” isn’t exactly the best way to describe something. Even though it’s incredibly fun to watch, it’s still astoundingly awful. Movies don’t sit on a single, linear scale with “masterpiece” at one end and The Hangover: Part II on the other. Moreover, that old critics’ adage that we should judge them against their own goals and their own genre doesn’t quite work either, not 100% of the time. “Midnight movies” are a perfect example of that. Winter’s Tale fails so miserably to achieve its romantic and dramatic goals that it becomes something entirely different. I suppose you could evaluate it only on its own terms, give it an F and tell everyone to see something else. But where’s the fun in that?
The catastrophic, oblivious breakdown of the lofty aspirations of Winter’s Tale turn it into a comedy. Not a bad drama that you can laugh at anyway, but an actual comedy. It doesn’t matter whether Goldsman wants it to be that way; it simply is. And the kind of comic energy that the film possesses is exactly what makes it a perfect midnight movie. It’s not unlike Hausu or The Room, actually. It’s the total nonsense of its plot, characters and style that make it so hilarious. There aren’t jokes in Winter’s Tale so much as there are surreal incongruities that send you into peals of involuntary laughter. Its energy is so wonky and its overconfidence so misguided, that it inspires the kind of blissful, unexpected cackling that sustains you, well past the booze and the exhaustion and into the night.
I’ll give you an example. Goldsman begins with the origins of Colin Farrell’s character, a New Yorker named Peter Lake who somehow has an Irish brogue. We meet his parents on Ellis Island in the late 19th century, immigrants from somewhere in Europe with thick accents and a baby in tow. Yet they’re too sick to be allowed into the United States. They plead that their child stay without them, because that makes sense. Then, somehow, the father finds the time to wander about the back rooms and find a beautiful model of a ship. (An Ellis Island museum somehow in existence while the immigration center was still in operation?) He steals the thing and somehow manages to sneak it onto the boat back to the Old Country. He and his wife then drop this flimsy toy into the Atlantic Ocean with their helpless child inside. In what can really only be considered a botched infanticide, the kid somehow ends up on the shores of New York City.
None of that makes any logical, historical or emotional sense. It is entirely possible that additional context given in Mark Helprin’s original novel would make the story entirely different, but Goldsman doesn’t include it. And that’s fine, because it works on its own. It’s hilarious. The whole movie is like that. None of the characters seem to exist in quite the same world. Russell Crowe’s incompetent supernatural Bill the Butcher is much too grand, more dumb bluster than convincing villain. The miraculous magic horse, a magnificently accidental reference to Mel Brooks’s History of the World: Part I, never gets any less funny. Every little impossible detail makes it better, from the weird sexual politics to its insistence that Eva Marie Saint’s sprightly New York Sun editor-in-chief is roughly 110 years old.
So yes, Winter’s Tale is a bad movie. It’s worse than most of the movies currently in theaters. Yet it is also much, much more worth your time than Lone Survivor or I, Frankenstein or any of the other bad movies you could spend money on this week. It is, frankly, more fun than a number of this year’s Oscar contenders. Our own Rob Hunter was dead on when he chose to give this movie a question mark rather than a letter grade. Go see it. See it before the irony-hunters of the future reclaim it as a cult classic. See it now.