Winter’s Tale is a movie about miracles, so it’s fitting that it manages to achieve one of its own. Through the power of garbled mythology and questionable artistic decisions, it’s guaranteed to cure the incurable romantic, on Valentine’s Day, no less.
Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, who’s responsible for A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man, makes his directorial debut here, and most of the movie, which is based on Mark Helprin’s novel, plays less like magical realism and more as if everyone involved owed Goldsman favors. Because Goldsman has written some of Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly’s best roles, the two actors seem eager to help. It’s too bad Goldsman has apparently forgotten what made his previous scripts work and seems ill at ease helming his own material.
It pains me to fault a filmmaker for trying too hard, but little of Goldsman’s effort pays off. Winter’s Tale involves skewed chronologies, the mystical world blending into our own, and a tale that’s thankfully not a remake or a sequel. Actually, Goldsman and Helprin rip off their opening from Exodus, from the Bible.
Abandoned by his cash strapped parents in a replica of a ship named City of Justice, Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) grows up to be a thief who has a way with all things mechanical, especially safes. When he decides to leave his autocratic underworld boss Pearly Soames (Crowe), the 1916 New York crime kingpin gets upset. The only severance package he offers is death.
If New York is your idea of hell, that may be because Pearly really is a demon, and he answers to Lucifer (Will Smith). That’s actually good casting. After seeing After Earth, it’s easy to believe Smith might indeed be the devil.
Peter manages to escape Pearly’s clutches thanks to a magical horse (who gives the best performance in the film) and a consumptive beauty named Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay). He also learns from a wise American Indian (Graham Greene) that the Almighty plants solutions to our problems all over the place that we can spot if we pay attention (the flying horse is easy to locate). Peter and Beverly also each have a miracle inside them that could be used to send the forces of darkness and single hood scampering.
While Farrell can play wounded romantics ably, the rest of the film is stretched past the point of absurdity. That’s remarkable for a fantasy film. Because the tale stretches over a century and a half, it’s clearly not working if you spend your time calculating how old some of the characters are while the film’s playing.
In a book, there’s time to explain the rules for the magic and why characters can or can’t do things. On screen, there’s little to do but scratch your head.
Caleb Deschanel’s (Zooey and Emily’s dad) cinematography (this guy has shot The Black Stallion, Fly Away Home and The Natural) is delicately ornate and just about right for this sort of story. It’s too bad it has been wasted on such shoddy material.
The special effects are another story. Watching Farrell and Brown Findlay riding to safety is guaranteed to elicit giggles as is Crowe’s turn as Pearly. One wonders why the filmmaker bothered to throw in CGI and effects makeup when Crowe already looks like he’s going to pop a blood vessel or turn into a wolf.
It’s too bad the horse isn’t around to rescue viewers from this film. One wonders if he could write a better screenplay than Goldsman.
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Cast: Colin Farrell, Jessica Brown Findlay, Russell Crowe, William Hurt, Will Smith, Graham Greene, Mckayla Twiggs, Jennifer Connelly, Eva Marie Saint Director: Akiva Goldsman Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence and some sensuality Running time: 118 minutes