‘Winter’s Tale’: An old-fashioned train wreck of a film
By Richard Roeper Chicago Sun-Times Movies Columnist February 20, 2014 2:40AM
‘WINTER’S TALE’ ★
Peter Lake | Colin Farrell
Beverly Penn | Jessica Brown Findlay
Virginia Gamely | Jennifer Connelly
Isaac Penn | William Hurt
Pearly Soames | Russell Crowe
Warner Bros. presents a film written and directed by Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by Mark Helprin. Running time: 118 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for violence and some sensuality). Opened Feb. 14 at local theaters.
Updated: March 22, 2014 6:11AM
“Winter’s Tale” is a good old-fashioned train wreck of a film. This is one of those deals where all the ingredients are Grade A, but the final product is a dud. Despite the beloved source material, a talented writer-director and an A-list cast peppered with Oscar winners, there’s no stopping the tide of the overwhelmingly cheesy story.
Hold on tight. This movie features a magical winged horse that’s really a dog, villains driving black sports cars on ice in unison as if they’re in a Super Bowl commercial, William Hurt arguing “fillet” should be pronounced “FILL-IT” because you don’t call a wallet a “wall-ay,” the legendary, 89-year-old Eva Marie Saint playing a character about 18 years older than that, and Will Smith as Lucifer, who wears some seriously blinged-out earrings.
Not to mention an oddly accented Russell Crowe as a scar-faced villain whose face morphs into something demonically animalistic whenever he loses his temper.
Everything about “Winter’s Tale” just feels … off. It’s a film that asks you to take a leap of faith (and a leap of fate), a film that shamelessly grabs for tear-inducing moments, yet I found myself curiously unmoved, even when pretty young people were dying pretty young deaths.
Even the hair in “Winter’s Tale” gives a bad performance. Colin Farrell’s coif is part Rudolph Valentino, part Shemp from the Three Stooges, and Farrell’s hair flaps distractedly in the wind as he races away from Crowe and his henchmen in one of the opening scenes of the film.
It’s New York, 1916. Farrell’s Peter Lake is a master thief with a good heart. That latter element has made him the obsession of one Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), a sadistic crime boss who will stop at nothing to kill his former protege. Things quickly turn magical (and weird) when Peter escapes Pearly and his dozens of henchmen with the help of a white horse called Horse that can sprout wings and soar above the city. No, really.
There’s a lot of voice-over narration about stars in the sky representing angels that were once humans, and how we’re all connected, and how sometimes the universe bends just enough for us to catch a glimpse of that. And by the way, Pearly isn’t exactly human, and his sole purpose across the centuries is to crush hope, but he has to abide by an ancient set of rules that includes some sort of order of protection that keeps him from following Peter outside city limits.
The lovely Jessica Brown Findlay, formerly of “Downton Abbey,” plays Beverly Penn, who is 21 years old and dying of tuberculosis. (Even in this world, Lady Sybil can’t catch a break). William Hurt is her protective father, who welcomes Peter into their fabulous lake home but tells him the upstairs room where Beverly sleeps is off-limits. Good luck with that, pops.
Peter loves Beverly with all his heart and believes he can save her from death, even after she’s dead. Some of the neighbor kids have even constructed a bed that looks like it’s straight from a fairy tale, so that when Beverly dies, Peter can transport Beverly’s corpse to the bed and plant a kiss on Beverly to wake her up.
Pearly hates Peter with all his heart and believes he can crush Peter’s dreams. There’s an overacting little girl who seems to hold the key to some mysterious secrets, and every once in a while the white horse shows up and flies to the heavens, courtesy of some kinda crummy special effects. It’s all very pretty and pretty deadly dull.
Things pick up when we zoom to 2014, with two of the main characters from the 1916 time line still around and looking the same, and Jennifer Connelly showing up as a New York newspaper food writer who doesn’t ask too many questions when miracles present themselves at her feet. (One of the great, head-shaking lines of the film occurs after the newspaper owner, who has just received confirmation of the story of the millennium, tells Connelly, “I look forward to your next recipe. I like pecans.” Wait, you don’t want her to write up the story with the time-bending universe and the flying horse?
Though filled with fantastical elements, “Winter’s Tale” is set in the New York of now and the New York of a hundred years ago, yet some of the math doesn’t add up. A girl who was about 6 years old in 1916 is an old woman but still working a full-time job in 2014. Wouldn’t she be about 104? And a 2014-era guy who’s about 30 years old is told a story about his grandfather, who was murdered in 1916, when he was about 30.
This is the directorial debut of Akiva Goldsman, the prolific and gifted writer of such films as “A Beautiful Mind,” “Cinderella Man” and “A Time to Kill.” (All right, so he also penned “Batman & Robin” and “Lost in Space.”) “Winter’s Tale” is based on the dense, acclaimed and best-selling 1983 novel from Mark Helprin. You can see by the cast, the material attracted myriad great and popular stars.
Maybe it would have worked as an animated film. As an admittedly earnest and ambitious live-action story of love and romance and our place in the universe, it’s a gooey mess.