A film review by Craig J. Koban July 4, 2014



2014, PG-13, 129 mins.


Colin Farrell as Peter Lake  /  Russell Crowe as Pearly Soames  /  Jessica Brown Findlay as Beverly Penn  /  Jennifer Connelly as Virginia Gamely  /  William Hurt as Isaac Penn  /  Matt Bomer as Peter's Father  /  Will Smith as Judge  /  Kevin Durand as Cesar Tan  /  Eva Marie Saint as Willa (Adult)  /  Kevin Corrigan as Romeo Tan  /  Lucy Griffiths as Mrs. Lake  /  Graham Greene as Humpstone John

Directed by Akiva Goldsman

WINTER’S TALE is a film of unintentional silliness and unpardonable wretchedness, made all the more head scratching based on the fact that it contains multiple Oscar nominated actors that I’ve admired for years that embarrass themselves throughout its 129 minutes.  

I can certainly see a kernel of ambitiousness with the underlining story here – a supernatural love story that spans multiple centuries, adapted from the 1983 novel of the same name by Mark Helprin – but the end result is so confusing, so chaotic, and so haphazardly conceived and executed that you gain the immediate sensation that it was all made up as they went along.  There are some that may indeed be touched by the film’s time spanning, heart-warming sentimentality.  I was driven to frequent bouts of sarcastic laughter. 

I read that Martin Scorsese was approached to helm this adaptation, which he quickly balked at, deeming the material unfilmable.  His instincts were right.  I have absolutely no problem with a film tackling a dense and convoluted mythology and trying to make it all stick together (that’s sometimes a Herculean task for any director), but Akiva Goldsman (an Oscar winning screenwriter for A BEAUTIFUL MIND and making his directorial debut here) seems to have no real clue how to harness the intricate narrative fabric from the literary WINTER’S TALE.  Fantasies require ample magic and a sensation of disbelief to make us invest in them, but Goldsman fails at giving the film a majestic, otherworldly sweep and grandiosity.  There’s very little, if any, wit, imagination, or, for that matter, basic narrative cohesiveness on display here.  More often than not, the actors look just befuddled. 

Where does one even begin to describe the story of this mess of a film?  The film introduces us to the concept of a temporal traveling hero, so to speak, which provides a beyond obvious wink to viewers that this is indeed a work of fantasy, but Goldsman does such a terrible job of initially establishing the who, what, when, where, and whys of the plot that viewers will be left jaded from the beginning.  I will try my best to simplify things: The story takes place in the past (1915) and the present in New York, with Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) apparently having the ability to traverse between both times without aging a day in the process.  In the past, Peter was a once-orphaned-as-a-child thief that falls into the wrong crowd, in particular one of New York’s most vile and despotic gangsters, Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), who also, shall we say, has powers beyond mortal men.  When Peter decides to severe all ties with Pearly, the vengeful thug decides to make him public enemy number one and orders a hit on him. 



In order to survive, Peter turns to petty home invasions and thievery.  One day he breaks into the house of newspaper publisher Isaac Penn (William Hurt), but the only one home at the time is his sickly daughter, Beverley (the luminous Jessica Brown Findlay), who’s dying of consumption.  Predictably, the two easily fall head over heels in love with one another, despite the fact that she’s knocking on death’s door.  Of course, their budding love is impeded by Pearly’s insistence on capturing Peter, but Peter is granted protection from God himself in the form of a white...magical...flying...horse (whaaaat?!) that appears at will (or whenever Goldsman’s script deems it convenient) to save him when things get really dicey.  To complicate matters even more, Peter finds himself in 2014 New York with – gasp! – amnesia…and with Pearly and his goon squad hot on his heels.  Destiny, it appears, keeps rolling the dice for these characters.  Viewers, on the other hand, will undoubtedly be checking their watches. 

Just what in the hell is this film about?  Seriously?  Really?  Who are these characters?  What are their motivations?  How does that magical horse appear and why?  And, dear Lord above, is that Will Smith playing Satin (simple answer…yes!)?  Okay, Pearly is clearly an agent of hell and has dark powers and Peter, I guess, represents the power of hope and goodness, but why do they battle it out on the streets of New York?  And why does God do very little to partake in such a war, other than to given Peter a magical pony and the ability to travel in time?  And, why for that matter, do people in the present day – like a kindly librarian, played by Jennifer Connelly – never once question the logic of how Peter has not aged in over a hundred years (she sees a turn of the century photo of him and, presto, seems convinced of his cockamamie abilities)?  People in this film, for lack of a better word, behave stupidly in WINTER’S TALE. 

More damning is that intelligent, perceptive, and empowered actors play these dumb characters.  Crowe is so all-over-the-map in his performance that he manages to thrust himself off of said map.  Will Smith aforementioned cameo as the Devil himself reaches levels of hammy self-parody; scenes between himself and Crowe – as their snarl and scream at one another, with shoddy CGI augmentation on their faces – are almost hysterically baffling.  Jennifer Connelly achieves the impossible by playing her role relatively straight amidst all of the strange madness around her.  Ditto for Eva Marie Saint (who turns up late in the film as a modern day newspaper mogul that has ties to Peter in the past), as she gives the film a dash of dignified class that it otherwise didn’t have.  Colin Farrell deserves special commendation, though, for playing Peter with a understated sincerity and poise, even when he has to perform in unimaginably goofy scenes involving him riding a badly rendered pixelized horse.  At least he and Findlay have some nice chemistry, even though it would have been better suited and served in a different film altogether. 

WINTER’S TALE looks good, thanks in large part to iconic cinematographer Caleb Deschanel’s lush and immersive work, which really stands out in the early 19th Century New York sequences.  Beyond that, WINTER’S TALE is an egregious artistic failure on most counts.  It fails as a multiple hankie romantic drama.  It fails as a supernatural thriller.  It fails as a well-meaning fable about the redemptive power of miracles.  Hell, it even fails as a pure escapist fantasy with flying horses (did I say the film has flying horses already?).  When the film finally builds to a potentially action packed and emotionally intense stand-off between Peter and Pearly I found myself just chuckling at the whole uproarious ape-shit preposterousness of this film.  WINTER’S TALE tries to be so many different kinds of movies and tell so many different kinds of stories – and does so without any confidence, swagger, or discipline – that I wished that God himself appeared about 30 minutes in for some divine intervention.  

Then again, even the almighty couldn’t save this turd.  

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