We've seen a lot of terrible fantasy movies, including some awful fairy tales, in recent years. But Winter's Tale, out today, feels like a low-water mark. Worse, it feels like a symptom of a bigger problem: we can't imagine magic and wonder without shellacking on extra layers of heroic destiny and epic good-vs-evil battles.
Winter's Tale is based on an acclaimed 1983 novel by Mark Helprin, and it's clearly a passion project for writer/director Akiva Goldsman. Goldsman turned Helprin's sweeping magic-realist tale into a fairy-tale romance, and roped in an A-list cast including Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe and a weird Will Smith cameo. But by all accounts, Warner Bros. slashed the movie's budget shortly before filming, from $75 million to $46 million. So the odds were against this one from the beginning.
But that doesn't entirely explain the incoherence of Goldsman's film. Or the fact that every single scene is treated as the most heart-rending emotional heartgasm ever, to the point where you feel as though the movie is beating you across the head and shoulders with a pillowcase stuffed with rocks. Most of all, there's no easy explanation for the movie's weird over-explainy-yet-nonsensical approach to magic and mythos.
There are two components to the movie version of Winter's Tale, and they sit weirdly together: 1) The personal, intimate story of burglar Peter Lake, who falls in love with a terminally ill heiress named Beverly in 1914 and then finds himself still alive in New York in 2014. 2) The epic battle for supremacy between demons and angels, in which they want to prevent Peter from using his "miracle" to save Beverly's life.
Colin Farrell, playing Peter Lake, has a certain surly charm as he falls in love with Beverly (Jessica Brown Findlay). But most of the time he seems both dazed and a little colicky as a rogue who's on the run from the demonic gangsters that he used to work for.
When we first see Farrell, it's 2014 and he's slouching around New York in a scraggly wig, looking like the last remaining member of 1990s acoustic band Extreme:
Peter Lake roams Grand Central Station, trying to piece together his origins as an orphan who was found in a tiny boat as a baby. Then we flash back to 1914, when he used to live in a crawlspace above the station, and see how he fled from the demon mob and found Beverly.
Meanwhile, as the leader of the satanic gang, Pearly Soames, Russell Crowe seems to be having the time of his life coming up with newer and weirder accents every five minutes. (About half the time, Crowe has a strange lisp.) He swaggers around berating his underlings and speechifying about how great it is to be evil. Basically, if you saw Crowe in The Man With the Iron Fists, you've kinda seen this performance.
At one point, Crowe is in a restaurant and he randomly doodles a big smudge in blood. Then he turns to one of his human minions and says: "Find this girl." Five minutes later, they find Beverly, entirely based on her resemblance to Pearly's blood-smudge.
So Peter Lake is on the run from Satan's gangs, who steal from people primarily to upset them so they'll turn to Lucifer. And he finds a white horse, which can fly — a fact that Peter takes pretty much in his stride, even though he apparently didn't know his boss was working directly for Satan.
And then a Native American shows up to explain to Colin Farrell, in like five minutes, that there's good and evil and they're fighting over souls and every person has a "miracle" inside him or her. Satan's gangsters are worried that Colin Farrell will use his miracle for the sick rich girl, so they need to catch him before he meet-cutes her. Alas, they're too late, and he gets to know Beverly, in one of the genuinely sweet and touching scenes that the movie scatters every now and then.
Soon enough, Peter realizes he's in love with Beverly — but she's dying of consumption and probably won't last much longer. Unless his miracle can save her from death.
And here's where the problem comes in to all this — the question of whether Peter and Beverly can be together, and whether he can use his "miracle" for her, becomes so bound up with the massive destiny-mongering and fantasy mythos that this film keeps trying to ram down our throats, that any possibility of actual living, breathing romance gets squelched. This film doesn't know how to be about characters experiencing emotions and forming connections, rather than a plot conveyor belt whisking us along through a succession of random events.
Plus the film constantly seems to be trying too hard to make us buy into Peter and Beverly's tragic love story, throwing in an adorable young girl and William Hurt, both of whom just want those crazy kids to be happy together. This film is the ultimate proof that manufactured sentimentality is the opposite of real emotion — and the greatest deterrent to a genuine feeling sneaking through.
The energy levels in this movie are all over the place — but in particular, it seems to come to a hideous sort of life whenever Russell Crowe is on screen bellowing at people. It's a problem when the over-the-top crazy villain is the only memorable thing about the movie — except for the CG flying horse, which is pretty sweet.
When we get back to 2014, we discover that the adorable little girl from 1914 is still around, and now she's a newspaper editor. She's like 110 years old, and she's editing a daily paper and meeting with ambassadors and telling random flunkies that she's having a milkshake for lunch. She immediately recognizes Colin Farrell, who hasn't aged in 100 years and whom she hasn't seen in all that time.
(I don't think the little girl still being around at age 110 and having a full-time job is meant to be the result of magic — it's just something that happens.)
It all builds up to a conclusion that's manipulative, sentimental and totally unearned — and you can't help feeling as though the story has been sacrificed in the name of plot wranglings.
Here's the best lesson I can draw from all this
When you crawl out of wreckage as scorched and as twisted as Winter's Tale, you want to draw some kind of lesson from it, something that might give a slight edge to future explorers facing a similar disaster. And here's the best I can come up with: Winter's Tale shows how the "hero's destiny" narrative fails, and why it's ill-suited to a small, personal story of romance.
Not having read Helprin's original novel, I can't know for sure — but watching the movie version, it feels as though Goldsman is trying to bolt a standard Hollywood "heroic destiny" narrative onto what ought to be a much more intimate, messy story of love and death. Romance and fairytales work together extremely well — see Stardust, for example — but romance and heroic prophecies work less well, unless the prophecy is something bigger and the romance is a sideline.
In this film, Satan's gangster minions are apparently desperate to stop Peter Lake using his "miracle" for Beverly, because this will be some kind of super-powerful act of love or sweetness that will tip the balance of the universe in the direction of good. That's a lot of baggage to put onto a romance between people who only just met. The preponderance of scenes where people (Crowe, Will Smith, the Native American shaman) stand around explaining the cosmic significance of this battle between good and evil only add to the sense that a million suitcases full of cosmic are being piled on top of a romantic relationship that's built out of toothpicks.
Part of the problem with this film is that it explains things in the first 15 minutes that would have huge impact if they were revealed in the final 15 minutes, after we'd already bonded with the characters. But because they're dumped on us early on, these pieces of info just feel random and pointless, and get in the way of telling a story.
And meanwhile, this movie has a philosophy that it expounds at great length, which combines the worst aspects of New Age mysticism and Judeo-Christian moralism.
Beverly says early on that the sicker she gets, the more she can see beams of light connecting everything, showing how we're all connected. And pure souls go into the sky to become stars after they die. And so on. There's woo-woo mysticism, but also some people are capital-E Evil and some people are capital-G Good. This stuff is expounded. It's expounded like someone got an expounding machine, turned it to maximum and then walked away.
So to sum up: if you can't imagine any kind of heroic story other than the "prophesied destiny" story; if you can't handle cosmic good-versus-evil battles without over-explaining the wacky mythos; if you substitute treacly sledgehammery sentimentality for living, breathing emotion — then your fairytale romance is likely to turn into a kludgey mess like Winter's Tale.