Director: Akiva Goldsman
Runtime: 118 minutes
The IMDB plot synopsis for Akiva Goldsman's Winter's Tale reads as follows: "A burglar falls for an heiress as she dies in his arms. When he learns that he has the gift of reincarnation, he sets out to save her." Are you simultaneously intrigued and stifling a laugh? Then you're probably the ideal audience for Mr. Goldsman's directorial debut, an attempt at magical realism that wields unapologetic sincerity as a blunt instrument. Too bad that said sincerity wasn't in service of something more coherent and engaging.
Still coasting on the goodwill from his Oscar-winning screenplay for A Beautiful Mind, Goldsman's movie is more or less what its synopsis proclaims. Yet it is also so much more, often to a baffling degree. There are demons engaged in a vaguely defined spiritual war, a magic horse that turns into a Pegasus when convenient, and a cameo from a superstar actor as Lucifer that ranks as one of the stranger bits of stunt casting in recent memory.
The absurdity, however, isn't apparent right at the start. It's the turn of the century, and orphan Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) is on the run in New York City. He spends his time stealing small objects, and storing them in his home, the attic of Grand Central Station (very Hugo-esque, no?). Mr. Lake is in hiding because he's run afoul of his former thieves, led by the intimidating Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe, brogue-ing it up to high heaven). Things really get moving, however, when Peter is caught trying to rob the home of Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay of Downton Abbey fame). She has consumption, just like Satine in Moulin Rouge!, but without the dancing skills, and knows it's not long before she shuffles off of this mortal coil to keep the plot going.
In between its risible dialogue ("Is it possible to love someone so completely that they never die?") and bland performances (aside from Mr. Crowe, who is spectacularly bad), Winter's Tale spends most of its time being marginally interesting, albeit in the dullest way possible. The reason to stick with it is simply to see where the whole nonsensical journey goes. Goldsman's adaptation of Mark Helprin's acclaimed novel is crippled by one of the worst hallmarks of bad fantasy: the rules of its world are poorly established, giving off the feeling that Goldsman is making things up as he goes along. There's a convenient answer for everything, and it usually involves the magical horse (who is named, wait for it, Horse).
This leaves Winter's Tale without any stakes or tension. We have no sense of what's possible or not in this low fantasy world, so barely any of the pieces ever come together to produce a moment of legitimate interest. Again, the story is only interesting in so far as it leaves you wondering what sort of half-baked nonsense the script will churn out next. And this is before the time travel. Remember that reincarnation bit? Well, somewhere past the halfway point, Peter winds up in present day Manhattan, and I'm not sure I can go any further without slipping into a state of slack-jawed awe.
Even from a technical point, Mr. Goldsman's film is thoroughly lackluster. Despite a solid budget of $60 million, the entire film is shot and colored in murky shades of blue, grey, and beige. By contrast, something as sumptuous as 2012's Anna Karenina was made for a fraction of the cost. Other aspects, like costumes, sets, and music, range from bland to just slightly above adequate.
Yet the question remains: just how bad is it? Well, it's certainly bad. Very bad. But, I must confess, the film's total sincerity is its own weird saving grace of sorts. It commits to this mushy fantastical nonsense, dammit, and that's probably the reason I felt no anger towards anyone involved. Winter's Tale isn't decent enough to be a noble failure, but it doesn't quite stoop low enough to be a disgrace. It's a film that's trying, yet simply putting all of its effort in all of the wrong places.