[18 February 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Over the weekend, the talentless hack known as Akiva Goldsman unleashed his own little passion piece of magical realism crap on unsuspecting fans of Colin Farrell (as if there are any still out there in moviegoer land) called Winter’s Tale. Based on a beloved book by Mark Helprin, the film focuses on a troubled young man who falls for a dying young woman in a weird NYC where the battle between good and evil is waged with wanton regularity. There’s talk of miracles, mystical entities, and a scarred Russell Crowe as one of The Devil’s own. Perhaps in the hand of someone with skill in this particularly precarious cinematic subgenre, this concept could and would work. With Goldsman’s untried eye behind the lens, the end result is ridiculous, not a revelation.
If fact, this film is so flawed that picking out the problems with its narrative and characters can be kind of fun - indeed, the only amusement available in this otherwise mystifying mess of a movie. How about the scene where Russell Crowe’s character recreates the NYC cityscape with the reflections of stolen gemstones? Or maybe the moment a bored Jennifer Connelly bonds with Colin Farrell over how to use microfiche? We could point out William Hurt’s nonchalant treatment of a man who just broke into his house, or the direct lifts from Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and every other motionless damsel in distress fairy tale. No, for us, these are the Top 10 Stupid Things in Winter’s Tale. While many come from the book, they are badly mangled by a man who should be kept behind a laptop, not a camera, while committing his artistic atrocities. Let’s start from the top:
When we are first introduced to the character of Peter Lake, played by the Irish not-quite-a-superstar, he is living in the ceiling of one of the most iconic buildings in all of NYC…except, this isn’t the real NYC. How can you tell? Well, the terminal is almost completely empty, Lake has access to it any time he wants, and his room is like a leftover from Hugo, except darker and dingier. Oh, and after 100 years of life as the travel hub of the largest city in this version of America, the room is still there when Lake goes looking for it.
When Peter is an infant, his parents are turned away at Ellis Island (or this movie’s concept of what Ellis Island was). In order to assure their son a life in the grand ol’ ‘other’ U.S. of A., they devise a bizarro world plan. Seeing a large ship in a bottle onboard their own freighter, they break the glass, grab the vessel, remove most of the insides, and send their child off toward Manhattan. The little boat’s name, by the way, is “City of Justice.” Peter keeps the metallic nameplate in a hope chest, along with his baby blanket. How sweet.
While trying to rob a manor for some get-out-of-town money, Peter runs into dying debutante Beverly Penn (played by Jessica Brown Findlay). She is sick with “consumption” which is also known as tuberculosis. Ms. Penn’s version of the disease is a little different, however. She has a horribly high fever which can be countermanded by staying outdoors in a tent during a typical NYC winter. In fact, her body temperature is so high it can melt snow if she stands in it. Of course, her malady is also manageable if she simply “believes” in her love for Peter. Oh brother.
In this psycho alternative universe, the Devil has a bunch of demons working for him in the guise of 1920s mobsters. One of them, Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe) has a borderline stalker obsession with his former “adopted son” Peter. So naturally, he heads over to the local longshoreman’s entrance to Hell to have a conversation with the big boss, who is played by…Will Smith (a commentary on Scientology, perhaps?). Oddly, whenever this deputy of the Fallen One speaks, Satan has some decidedly backhanded critiques to offer. Nothing more comforting or informative, just one cloven hoofed criticism after another.
During Pearly’s initial chase of Peter, our hero looks sunk. He’s just jumped over a fence and is now facing a dead end. Naturally, out of nowhere, a winged horse ala Pegasus shows up to save him. Of course, the wings aren’t visible, and when Pearly sees the steed, he refers to it as a white “dog” spirit guide come to rescue a lost soul. Ummm… okay. Wait a minute - WHA??? So a great mythological white horse is actually a dog? And is more or less unstoppable, even against Satan’s own Once Upon a Time in America crew? That’s totally believable.
After being rescued by his white horse/dog spirit guide savior, Peter is whisked away to a lakeside in Upstate New York. Naturally, said body of water is frozen over and Beverly and her family just so happen to be staying there for the immediate time being. When Pearly decides to go after his mark, he remembers that this area is “off limits” via some manner of pact or treaty with…who? God? Jesus? The Holy Ghost? For whatever reason, Pearly and his pals merely run up to the border, grumble like ungrateful children, explain their plight, and then retreat back to the city proper.
According to the movie’s narrative timeline, Peter is a baby in 1907. He then ends up a twenty-something ten years later. Now, fast forward to 2014 and Peter is still alive and seeking some answers. And who does he end up discovering during his investigation, aside from a comatose reporter played by Jennifer Connelly? Why, the little sister of Beverly, who now runs the family’s publishing empire. Considering it’s been almost a century since the two interacted, and the kid was at least four or five the last time they were together, that would make this lady (played by Eva Marie Saint)...how old???
Now, you may be asking yourself how Peter manages to live across time? After all, he’s not a health food nut or into exercise. No, in this version of existence, God gives everyone a miracle. Sometimes, the devil or his henchmen can take it from you. In other instances, you will continue to count the years until you’re given a chance to use it. In this case, the Creator has keep Peter alive for nearly 120 years to… save a little girl with cancer? Really? Not end hunger or bring about World Peace. Just cure some random kid, not a future world leader or important figure? Wow.
Of course, Pearly Soames is still alive (he’s an imp, remember?) and he still is Jonesing for Peter’s soul. So Satan gives him an ultimatum—drop this desire to take down this particular chosen person, or reject your demon-osity, become mortal, and fight him fair and square. If Pearly wins, great! If not, he is doomed to die in Hell. So naturally, knowing full well that God has got Pete’s back, our villain decides to become people and partake of a beatdown. Sadly, it’s his own, resulting in a weird moment where he becomes frozen, and then explodes into a trillion dust particles.
Now, all of this regressive ridiculousness is supposed to provide some manner of allegorical explanation for our purpose on Earth. Some of us are good, some of us are bad, and some of us are stuck in Akiva Goldsman’s love letter to his own ludicrous and unearned status as an Oscar winning screenwriter. Indeed, this entire movie feels like the reaction of someone sick and tired of hearing the scribe sing his own praises. They handed him a few million bucks and told him to go away… and for a storyline that suggests that, when we die, we become… stars? That’s it. No Heavenly hosts. No choir of angels. Just big balls of gas?