By Alan Mattli
Somewhere over the course of watching Akiva Goldsman’s Winter’s Tale, somewhere between leading man Colin Farrell physically loving Jessica Brown Findlay to death and him ascending to the heavens on a flying horse (who is actually a dog) to become a newly-formed star on the firmament, it becomes almost impossible not to wonder: is this a parody? Are the people responsible for this magnificent atrocity really being serious, or did they knowingly create such an ingeniously subversive, deviously subtle satire on movie romances and the concept of true and undying love they purport?
Indeed, were it not for its source material, Mark Helprin’s sprawling 1983 novel of the same name, which enjoys a cult status of sorts, one might be more than ready to give it the treatment film buffs and some enterprising critics have given Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls recently, rereading it as a wrongfully shunned masterpiece with a satirical dimension its many detractors could or would not see upon its initial release 19 years ago. But considering the widespread reverence for Helprin’s book as well as the passion with which first-time director Goldsman – he previously adapted John Forbes Nash’s A Beautiful Mind for the screen, which earned him an Oscar for screenwriting – reportedly approached the project, it seems like the film’s comical earnestness must be taken at face value.
Incipiently set in 1916’s New York, Winter’s Tale finds its hero, parentless burglar Peter Lake (Farrell, whose trademark Irish accent is never adequately explained), at odds with constantly scowling crime kingpin Pearly Soames (the irony of his ridiculous first name appears to be lost on the film), played by Russell Crowe sporting a borderline offensive caricature of an Irish brogue reeking of failed Method acting. Thus, he decides to skip town, but before he can act upon the instinct, a white wonder horse – which, as explained by a wasted Graham Greene, is his guardian angel – points to the house of upper-class beauty Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), who is dying of consumption. Beverly and Peter spend a couple of minutes together exchanging cringeworthy flirting dialogue, decide they have found their respective soulmate in each other, head upstate where Peter gains the blessing of Beverly’s father (William Hurt – as bemused as the audience to find himself in this position), and spend one fatal night together, which results in Beverly’s death. (It is shown that – and explained why – this was orchestrated by Soames’ men, but Goldsman’s script conveniently circumnavigates the part in which it elaborates on how the assassination worked.)
A distraught Peter then faces off with Pearly and his henchmen, only to reappear in present-day New York, haunted by the image of Beverly, but, due to a sudden bout of amnesia (the ploy may not be quite as outlandish as it was in Futurama‘s delightful soap opera spoof All My Circuits, but Winter’s Tale does invite the comparison nonetheless), he cannot remember her. On his quest to recall his past life (?), he encounters a helpful woman (Jennifer Connelly), whose daughter is dying of cancer.
If there is something to be said in favour of this movie, then that it is endearingly, heartwarmingly, in a crude way even refreshingly sincere about its tale of star-crossed love, as if intent on justifying beyond any reasonable doubt its worthiness of being globally released in cinemas on Valentine’s Day. There is a sense of abandon to this film, reminiscent of Cloud Atlas, which is fascinating to behold in this day and age, where the seventh art is a multi-million dollar business full of checks and balances. To be able to guide such a train wreck of a movie to the finishing line, i.e. to a wide release, is a remarkable feat in and of itself.
But Winter’s Tale evokes Cloud Atlas in even more ways. For one, much like the more avid defenders of the Wachowski/Tykwer masquerade who pointed to the reputed complexity of David Mitchell’s source novel, Helprin apologists are now quick to say that the author’s subtle vision does not translate easily onto film. More strikingly, however, it seems that in Winter’s Tale, just as in Mitchell’s sixfold epic, all bets are off and anything can, and probably will, happen – which is the main reason why Goldsman’s film is such an astounding as well as entertaining disaster. One might term it a prime example of Murphy’s Law cinema.
The cascade of incredibility starts with the revelation that a war between angels and demons is waged right in the middle of New York, a war that – as far as one can tell at least, since the movie declines to set up, or indeed stick to any, of its universe’s rules, in spite of calling upon them numerous times – revolves around the innate miracle that is embedded in every human. (Far-reaching recruitment campaigns between the two parties are mentioned, too, and Pearly Soames, a high-ranking demon, is shown to possess soothsaying powers when presented with gemstones, but these elements barely, if ever, impact the story in a coherent way.) Beverly, who serves as a dreamily inane narrator, drivels on about how her illness make her see how “everything in the world is connected by light” and how “the universe bends over backwards to help a dying child”. It wouldn’t take a great cynic to counter that claim with countless references to instances of children dying needless deaths, but Winter’s Tale is so caught up in its own self-parodying romanticism that it is difficult to feel offended by such wide-eyed statements.
And there still is more. There is the economy of miracles and wishes that allows Peter to live as long as he does. There is Will Smith as the Devil, hiding out in New York, whose jaw plummets when Pearly angers him, as if he were a Tex Avery cartoon character. There is Eva Marie Saint playing a still-active journalist even though her character should be, based on the film’s internal chronology, in her 100s – one of the many moments where it is tempting to question the project’s alleged seriousness. There is the priceless scene of Russell Crowe making a wanted poster of Beverly by drawing a stick figure outline of a woman and scrawling on some blood as hair. There is the irritating tendency of characters to answer simple queries with an unnecessarily detailed retelling of their life up to that point.
And there would be even more. However, describing all the different ways the movie finds to fail does not come close to experiencing it firsthand. It is horrible beyond description, it is one of the worst films this critic has ever seen. But, and this is the crucial part, he has also not been entertained to such an extent for a good long while. If 2014 produces only one abjectly terrible movie that is well worth the price of admission, it’s Winter’s Tale.
½★ (out of six)
For more reviews (in German), visit www.facingthebittertruth.com.