What to make of a time-spanning romance featuring Lucifer in a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt, a flying horse named Deus Ex Machina, and a woman killed by a too-warm penis? What indeed.
Winter’s Tale opens in present day New York City and stays there for a full three minutes before jumping back to 1895 and a ship filled with hopeful immigrants. One couple is turned away, but desperate for their infant son’s future they lower him into the water and toss his fate to the waves. Quick cut to 21 years later, and Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) is a petty thief on the run.
Yes. Colin Farrell plays a 21 year-old.
He’s on the run from Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), a demonic mob boss intent on killing Peter for some unknown slight, but before heading out of town Peter makes time for one last score at the home of newspaper editor Isaac Penn (William Hurt). What he doesn’t know is that Penn’s deathly ill but still gorgeous daughter, Beverly (Jessica Brown Findlay), is tickling the ivories inside, and one admittedly well-written meet-cute later the beginning of a great love has stirred in their loins and in the air between them. Poor pronoun reference there, but it’s not inaccurate.
Unfortunately, their romance seems doomed from the start. Between the consumption (aka tuberculosis) threatening to burn up her insides, Pearly’s promise of murder sanctioned by his boss Lucifer, and a seemingly endless string of nonsensical narration concerning stars, light, and the “great dance where we all have our part,” it’s clear that their time together is limited. So of course Peter decides to stir those loins faster, but as an uneducated orphan he’s unaware that speed increases friction and friction leads to heat…
This is a weird ass movie that can in no way be considered good or even competent on any level but the technical. Writer/director Akiva Goldsman has reportedly been trying to adapt Mark Helprin’s bestselling and beloved NYC-set fantasy novel for over a decade, but judging by the gloriously demented and unintentionally hilarious results he might have needed another ten years to crack this particular nut. To be fair to Goldsman though, he himself is a hack writer (Oscar for his A Beautiful Mind script notwithstanding), and no one should have expected anything better here especially as he also chose to make this his directorial debut.
The crux of the film involves some vague battle between good and evil in which Peter is playing an ignorant part. Pearly is a literal demon tasked with maintaining a level playing field on earth in the war between the man upstairs and Lucifer (a miscast actor you will probably recognize). His specific beef with Peter, something that burns bright across nearly a century as the film moves back to the present, seems to be about little more than Peter quitting Pearly’s bowler-wearing gang of thugs and pick-pockets. His motivations grow even murkier when Beverly enters the picture alongside the concept that every human gets one “miracle,” and he decides she has to die.
She’s already dying of course, that’s been made clear, but that doesn’t stop him from scribbling out a sketch of a woman’s head as seen from behind, and then ordering his men to find her somewhere in NYC. Which they do. From a sketch of red hair. Drawn on paper he tore from a table at Joe’s Ye Old Crab Shack.
There’s a steady stream of moments here that will leave you quizzical and confused even as you’re laughing at the heartfelt idiocy on display. Grahame Green appears briefly to recollect how he pulled young Peter from the water 21 years ago and now his people only have ten songs. What? Pearly plans truly deadly methods of execution for when he catches Peter, deadly being the best way to succeed at execution, but then decides to headbutt the guy to death instead? A man with no memory, name, or identification has a nice brownstone apartment in modern-day NYC? Is the fate of mankind really going to be settled with a fist fight? Where did Jennifer Connelly come from and what is she doing in this?
It’s understood that movies, fantasy ones in particular, aren’t bound by silly things like facts, but this film’s aversion to mathematical truths is especially bold. In addition to Farrell playing a 21 year-old, we also meet a woman who by the film’s own dates is roughly 106 even though that’s clearly not the intention. Another character dies in 1916, but their tombstone states the year prior. The movie’s 118 minutes long, but it easily feels over two hours.
I could continue, but some joys are best discovered first hand.
Goldsman’s script is bad, but it’s clear that part of the problem comes straight from the source material. This is not a judgement on Helprin’s novel (which I haven’t read), but instead it’s apparent that the book’s odd structure and dense material left Goldsman struggling with which elements to keep and which to ignore. It feels like material is missing, from further exposition to more time simply spent with characters, and the result is a scattershot narrative that never comes together.
The cast makes the best of things with Farrell turning in a solid performance and emotional beats that fail for reasons outside his control. Findlay, she of TV’s Downton Abbey, is a throaty and thick-necked beauty (both compliments) whose presence is the closest the film comes to feeling magical. She’s saddled with some of the script’s worst lines, but her breathy voice makes them bearable. Crowe meanwhile is fully invested in his bloated leprechaun persona and makes Pearly the film’s liveliest and most entertaining character.
Winter’s Tale, so named because some scenes take place when it’s cold out apparently, is a terrible movie. The romance doesn’t work, the fantastic elements feel out of place, there’s barely a single effective moment of suspense or emotion, and the metaphysical message is a confused jumble of words randomly typed by chimpanzees while peyote smoke is blown into their anuses by drunken clergymen. There’s no getting around any of that, and yet… I want you to go see it. To experience it. And to confirm for me that I didn’t just dream the whole damn thing.
The Upside: So sincere in its utter ridiculousness; Jessica Brown Findlay.
The Downside: Absurdly terrible script; every emotional beat fails to connect; magic is flat.
On the Side: Martin Scorsese was attached to the adaptation back in the late ’80s, but he reportedly walked away from the project having decided the novel was “unfilmable.”