Akiva Goldsman is one of those Hollywood screenwriters who has accrued a fair amount of animosity over the years, both because of his perceived lack of talent (he did have a hand in scripting “Batman & Robin,” “The Da Vinci Code,” and “Lost in Space,” amongst others) and for his almost unparalleled level of success (he won a Best Screenplay Oscar for his work on Ron Howard‘s “A Beautiful Mind,” and in the process taught us all that mental illness could be cured through the healing power of love). Regardless of what you think of him, Goldsman has genuine power, and for the past few years has used that power to secure funding for a lavish adaptation of novelist Mark Helprin‘s goopy 1983 supernatural romance “Winter’s Tale.” It is the ultimate Akiva Goldsman statement, mixing both his propensity for high concept gobbledygook with cloying, saccharine sentimentality. The result is a colossal folly the likes of which we haven’t seen in years. It’s truly unbelievable. We’re still reeling.
While the trailers and television spots for “Winter’s Tale” are selling it as a sweeping, time-traveling romance, the opening sequences make it very clear that the movie is more like what would happen if Nicholas Sparks wrote “Cloud Atlas“—there are a number of timelines, some supernatural elements, and a whole lot of breathy narration about miracles and chance and fate. But unlike “Cloud Atlas,” which was nothing if not ambitious and heady, “Winter’s Tale” is lazy and repetitive and doesn’t have a whole lot on its mind, coming across instead like an empty-headed, lovesick doodle. This is the kind of movie where the Warner Bros. logo is revealed, before turning a sepia tone the color of iced tea, while sickly sweet music overtakes the soundtrack.
At the turn of the century, a pair of immigrants (one of them is played by Matt Bomer in silly old-timey garb) try to gain access to America, only to be turned away once they’ve arrived because they aren’t healthy enough. They’re instructed, by a horribly rendered lens flare (seriously—the movie is riddled with them) to set their baby inside a model ship and then send that baby towards America. You can tell Goldsman is attempting to create and sustain an atmosphere of magical realism, but it instead comes across as strained, half-assed whimsy. While all of this is happening, the story is also jumping forward to present day, where a bedraggled man named Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) is searching Grand Central Station for clues to his past, sort of like a middle-aged Hugo.
Soon enough, the story starts in earnest (and we do mean earnest), with Peter Lake, in 1916 Manhattan, running away from a violent crime boss named (get this) Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe). It looks like Peter’s proverbial goose is cooked, until a magical white horse named Athansor (!) shows up and whisks Peter away, by literally flying over the amassed group of gangsters and thugs. Jesus. Just recounting the plot is painful. Imagine having to watch it. Peter decides that the horse is his new partner in crime and begins plans to leave the city. That is, of course, until, once again egged on by the horse and another phony flash of a computer-generated lens flare, has him breaking and entering the house of a gorgeous, consumptive young woman named Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay). It’s love at first sight, she curbs his bad boy behavior, blah blah blah…
The details of “Winter’s Tale’s” plot, which might borrow its name from the Shakespeare classic but has nothing to do with it, are so asinine and unimportant that they don’t really need to be recounted here. (In our notes that we took during the movie, the words “TOTALLY INCOMPREHENSIBLE” are double-underlined.) You should probably know that Will Smith shows up at some point as The Judge, giving us the alternate universe thrill of seeing what would have happened if Jay-Z had played the Robert De Niro part in “Angel Heart.” Smith, whose apartment in 1916 is decked out in a modern chaise lounge, reads from “A Brief History of Time” (yuk) and wears a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt and hooped earrings in both of his lobes. It’s at this point that “Winter’s Tale” goes from being pointless and stupid and awful to being straight-up insufferable, that rare monstrosity that is so sure of its own importance and cleverness that it can’t even allow itself to be funny.
Peter Lake’s love, of course, succumbs, and Crowe’s minions catch up with him and drop him off a bridge (don’t worry, the magical flying horse gets away unharmed). Lake crawls out of the water, though, which is when “Winter’s Tale” doesn’t even bother explaining itself, because we’re suddenly in modern day New York City, without any clue whether or not Lake has woken up from some kind of supernatural stupor really, really late, or if he’s been living in New York for a hundred years in a kind of amnesiac fugue state. (How does such a person, say, pay Manhattan rent? Especially when all he does is draw elaborate chalk drawings of his doomed lover?) The Demonic Russell Crowe is still around, of course, and still supremely pissed off (why? Let it simmer Demonic Russell Crowe!) Meanwhile, Farrell has fallen into some kind of relationship with a plucky, incredibly beautiful reporter (Jennifer Connelly), whose daughter is similarly afflicted, this time with a more modern medical ailment. Cue talk about miracles, and ascending to the stars, and people turning into piles of crushed snow when you kill them. Also: another appearance by Will Smith as hip-hop Satan! Yes!
“Winter’s Tale” is unbelievable, in that you seriously cannot believe how fucking stupid it is. It seems to top itself, scene after scene, piling on general ludicrousness, dopey philosophical underpinnings, supernatural hooey (complete with nonsensical “mythology” and “rules”), with all the sophistication of a bedtime story and the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face (yes, those are our bloody teeth, thanks). It doesn’t even make any sense in the bubble-world of its own invention, like when Eva Marie Saint shows up as the elderly version of a young girl that Peter knew back in olden times. He has supposedly been gone (or underground or whatever) for more than 100 years. So she is supposed to be, what, 115 by now? Goldsman, whose direction is as poor as his writing, seems to suggest that none of this really matters, because of something about the transformative power of love and flying horses (who are really dogs?) and the eternal struggle between good and evil.
This is a movie that is many things—a profound work of hubris, a misguided attempt at filmmaking, incredibly boring—and yet it is nothing. Instead of being overwhelmed by the woozy feeling that the best big screen romances give you, “Winter’s Tale” just leaves you befuddling and probably more than a little bit angry. A lot of good actors (including Farrell, who has been so great in things as disparate as the splatter comedy “Seven Psychopaths” and the deeply-underrated horror remake “Fright Night“) are wasted, many of them former Goldsman collaborators who are only here because the filmmaker called in a favor, and the entire movie feels belabored, lumbering from one awful, over-dressed set piece to another. It’s wrongheaded, it’s horrendous, it’s filled with lines of dialogue that are utter howlers, and yet, it’s the type of movie that feels so confident that it really is something. It is, in fact, not. This Valentine’s Day, if you really love someone, keep them far away from “Winter’s Tale.” [F]