There is a brilliant film to be made from Mark Helprin's simultaneously pretentious yet vivid and imaginative 1983 tale of early 20th century life in New York City that weaves together fantasy and realism in one fell swoop.
This ain't it.
Helmed by first-time director and Oscar winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, who has penned such acclaimed films as A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man along with mediocre fare like I Am Legend and Batman & Robin, Winter's Tale is clearly being released on Valentine's Day weekend in the hopes of snagging its fair share of the romantic weekend's moviegoers with its allegedly romantic tale of ill-fated love and the battle of semi-good over downright evil.
Semi-good is represented by Colin Farrell as Peter Lake, a renegade con-man with a good heart in 1914 who makes the mistake of betraying one seriously demonic Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), a chap so evil that his face quite literally transforms itself when someone makes the mistake of really ticking him off.
That seems to happen a lot.
After narrowly escaping Soames thanks to the help of a mysterious winged horse (really!) that he insightfully proceeds to call "horse," Peter skips town hoping to further avoid the wrath of Pearly (Doesn't that sound like a Three Stooges film?) and rips off a few houses along the way before stumbling across the mansion owned by Edward Penn (William Hurt) and wherein lies his beautiful daughter, Beverly Penn (Jessica Findlay, formerly of Downton Abbey), a terminally ill woman whom we are repeatedly reminded is diagnosed with "consumption."
That's tuberculosis, in case you didn't know.
The two devastatingly beautiful people make cutesie with one another for a few moments before Beverly must prepare for a trip the following day to join her family for a getaway and Peter must, well, get away.
Trust me. You know what happens from here on out.
Eventually, the story shifts to the 21st century and the film gains another wasted Oscar winner, Eva Marie Saint, playing the massively elder version of Beverly's younger sister from 100 years ago.
Stop. Don't try to figure it out.
There is so much contained in Winter's Tale that could be awe-inspiring and wonderful and magical and truly romantic, but Goldsman's writing is not up to par here with dialogue that is clunky, simplistic, and at times downright befuddling. Farrell and Findlay project little in the way of actual chemistry, though it's not like they're given much chance to do so in a film that seems to be trying so desperately hard to say something meaningful yet continuously does so in ways that are laughable and derivative.
Winter's Tale is only remotely watchable because Goldsman's top notch cast is doing its darndest to bring this material to life. Farrell, despite having zilch in the way of chemistry with Findlay, is rather likable and convincing even when the film tries to sell him in 21st century New York having hardly aged at all for reasons never quite disclosed.
I'm sure it has something to do with that whole "there's magic everywhere"thing the narrator tells us about.
Jessica Findlay is lovely as ever, while Jennifer Connelly manages to make the most of a role that makes little in the way of sense. Eva Marie Saint is a joy as always in her first screen role in several years, while William Hurt, even with some truly and hilariously godawful lines, manages to most closely capture the vibe it seems Goldsman was really going for here.
Russell Crowe, who has worked with Goldsman on both A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man, completely skews the film's dramatic impact with a performance that is histrionic and far more intense than anything else that happens in the film and far out of balance for a film that seeks to project a sense of magical realism. Will Smith, as an unbilled but far from secret Lucifer, is made up to look like either a demonic Willy Loman or Chris Gardner and I'm never quite sure if he's there to wreak havoc on the world or just shoot pool.
Naomi Shohan's production design is stellar, while D.P. Caleb Deschanel lenses the film in a way that is simultaneously warm and brooding. The music, credited to both Hans Zimmer and Rupert Gregson-Williams, leans too heavily toward the film's realism while avoiding any sense of whimsy or fantasy.
On a weekend at the box-office with four opening films all, at least to a certain degree, emphasizing romance, Winter's Tale is the weakest of the bunch even amongst a trio of films without a true stand-out.
Is it possible to love someone so much that they can't die?
Will anyone really even care?
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic