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Aspiring transcendent love stories don’t come much more claptrappy and unconvincing than Winter’s Tale. In a yarn spanning more than a century, people die (or, then again, maybe they don’t), vendettas never end, a white Pegasus is always there to save the day, any trace of humor is banished and Will Smith suddenly sprouts dagger-sharp teeth at the climax of his worst-ever big-screen appearance. The Valentine’s Day release date is predicated on the idea that such a soapy tale will make for a good date movie, so Warner Bros. will have to hope that love story-seeking young women will be able to convince their dates that this one will be OK because Colin Farrell and Russell Crowe are in it. They’d do much better with The Lego Movie.
Mark Helprin‘s nearly 800-page 1983 novel has a substantial literary reputation, but what’s been hatched by Akiva Goldsman, a veteran screenwriter making his directorial debut, would make you think that the original story here was cooked up by Nicholas Sparks. Goldman is fortunate in his friends, having gotten his A Beautiful Mind co-stars Crowe and Jennifer Connelly to come aboard, and having induced Smith, with whom he worked on I, Robot, Hancock and I Am Legend, to do his ill-advised extended cameo.
Connections like this can help get your film made, but they don’t necessarily make it palatable. Neither does such a solemn, sanctimonious approach to material that is far-fetched by any standard. Rather than giving it a wink and a nod, thus inviting the viewer to become complicit in his romantic flight of fancy and fantasy, Goldsman lays on the blowsy sincerity while lacing the film with impenetrably air-headed narration about how “everything is connected by light” (in a British accent, for added gravitas) and investing in a hero who can ask with a straight face, “Is it possible to love someone so much they can’t die?”
A couple of generations ago, in Love Story, the answer was no. In fact, with external appointments changed, the first section of Winter’s Tale actually is Love Story: Lower-class boy and upper-class girl fall in love, utter banal platitudes, she dies. Then, 98 years later, he’s still around, still in his 30s and mooning about her, and still being pursued by his diabolical former mentor who can’t forgive a slight.
No doubt intended as an emotionalized and commercialized embodiment of Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence,” the time-jumping setup is so lacking in plausible narrative underpinnings that Goldsman would have needed to somehow seduce the audience into accepting the wild leaps the story takes. Without the needed persuasion, the strong temptation is just to reject the entire premise early on, which makes for a lot of eye-rolling, exasperated sighing and wristwatch glancing during the remaining long haul.
At the outset, in 1895, a baby is surreptitiously set adrift on a toy boat called City of Justice into New York Harbor by immigrant parents forced to return to Europe. Two decades later, baby-turned-professional thief Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) is cornered by a very angry man with terrible scars across the left side of his face, Pearly Soames (Crowe), the ringleader of Brooklyn’s Short Tails gang. Pearly, having trained the lad, would rather kill him than let him go his own way, and he nearly does before Peter finds a horse that spirits him off and out of Pearly’s clutches.
It’s symptomatic of Peter’s lack of wit that, all through the years, he’s never able to come up with another name for this helpful animal other than “Horse.” However, he is able to recognize a good thing when he sees one, which he does when, while attempting to rob a Manhattan mansion one night, he finds within it its greatest treasure, Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay, aka Lady Sybil Crawley in Downton Abbey), the beautiful red-headed daughter of one of New York’s richest men (William Hurt).
For the next hour or so, a photogenic but bland romance progresses as the love-struck Peter tends to the 21-year-old while she slowly dies of consumption. Periodically, Peter must ward off attacks by the relentless Pearly, who at one point visits an underground hideout to ask a favor of the so-called “Judge” (Smith), a Lucifer-like figure who rants at his underling before baring teeth that go pointy like a werewolf’s. After much cavorting, swooning and expressions of eternal devotion in a variety of scenic settings, Peter willingly obliges Beverly’s final request, the experience of physical love, before she expires. Pearly then tosses Peter off the Brooklyn Bridge.
Flash forward to 2014, there’s Peter, now a long-haired and bearded chap creating chalk drawings in Central Park. Not knowing his name nor where he is, he nonetheless befriends Virginia (Connelly) and her little daughter Abby (Ripley Sobo). They begin to connect some dots, the also-still-extant Pearly persists in his pursuit of Peter, “Horse” is still alive and flying, and miracles are expected.
As the presumed star-crossed climax approaches, one is struck by the exceptional opulence of the New York settings (particularly the vintage ones) overseen and/or created by production designer Naomi Shohan and visual effects supervisor Richard Hollander, the great care devoted to the changing backdrops and skylines dictated by the eras, and the beauty with which it has all been photographed by Caleb Deschanel. This is one movie that was definitely not shot in Louisiana.
Unfortunately, the great settings lack vital and compelling characters to place within them. Farrell has to work harder than anyone and he’s nothing if not energetic, but the burden of the premise falls harder on him than on anyone else. Crowe is one tough dude here in a character who is malevolence and nothing but. Pearly would seem to outweigh Peter by at least 75 pounds, making a major brawl between them as far-fetched as just about everything else in this unbelievable tale.
Production: Weed Road/Marc Platt Productions
Cast: Colin Farrell, Jessica Brown Findlay, Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Eva Marie Saint, Graham Greene, Kevin Corrigan, Matt Bomer, Lucy Griffiths, Ripley Sobo, McKayla Twiggs, Alan Doyle, Will Smith
Director: Akiva Goldsman
Screenwriter: Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by Mark Helprin
Producers: Akiva Goldsman, Marc Platt, Michael Tadross, Tony Allard
Executive producers: James Packer, Steven Mnuchin, Kerry Foster, Bruce Berman
Director of photography: Caleb Deschanel
Production designer: Naomi Shohan
Costume designer: Michael Kaplan
Editors: Wayne Wahrman, Tim Squyres
Music: Hans Zimmer, Rupert Gregson-Williams
Rated PG-13, 118 minutes
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