Colin Farrell talks to flying horses in the romantic fantasy "Winter's Tale." Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
'Winter's Tale' Director: Akiva Goldsman Stars: Colin Farrell, Jessica Brown Findlay Rating: PG-13 1 Globe (out of 5)
There are few people in movies today better at playing earnest than Colin Farrell. If you the viewer don’t believe in the material he’s trying to sell, you believe that he believes in it. In other words, he’s the perfect actor to put at the helm of the urban fantasy-love story “Winter’s Tale." He's perhaps the only person who can deliver a line like “I’m pulled to her, like air when I’m under the water,” and make it sound basically okay. But Farrell's not good enough to talk to a flying horse, nor make watchable a love story that defies time and space and makes room for evil demons who have nothing better to do than to thwart a relationship. Nobody's that good.
Then again, perhaps this all reads better on the page. Mark Helprin’s sprawling 1983 bestseller — which has nothing to do with Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” — has been whittled down to a semi-comprehensible love story that spans over a century. Farrell’s Peter Lake is an orphaned thief in early 20th century New York who falls madly for Beverly Penn (“Downton Abbey”’s Jessica Brown Findlay). She’s a whimsical society waif beatifically dying of a movie version of consumption that renders her body literally hot. She’s never been kissed, and Peter would be the man to do that — plus some soft-focus PG-13 lovin’ — were he not being pursued by a mob boss who’s also a hellbeast (Russell Crowe), and one who occasionally likes to kill his henchmen for no reason. (Kevin Corrigan gets booted prematurely, presumably because he looks bored.)
This is a madly ambitious tale, not only in terms of how much time is covered but the tone required to sell its more, shall we say, giggle-worthy conceits. Perhaps it would be worth defending if it weren't for the misery wreaked by its filmmaker. Akiva Goldsman won an Oscar for writing “A Beautiful Mind,” which accolade seemed to obscure such previous credits as “Batman and Robin” and “A Time to Kill.” He was at one point Hollywood’s worst screenwriter, his name a promise of brainless junk and groaning puns.
There’s schadenfreude to be had by how much he overextends himself in his directorial debut, which finds him tripping over dense mythology, struggling to turn a mishmash into a simple love story. His decision to parcel out information winds up backfiring, as characters rush to explain magical things that just happened. Sometimes they don’t even do that: when Crowe and gang find themselves unable to leave the five boroughs of New York City, he just shrugs and mumbles, “It’s the rules.” It’s feels like one film that could stand to begin with a painfully long introductory text scrawl (or better yet, a disembodied head spouting exposition a la “Zardoz” and David Lynch’s “Dune”).
The tone is a bigger problem. Farrell believes in this, as does Findlay. Everyone else seems lost. Crowe amuses himself with an inexplicable Lucky Charms Irish accent, while Jennifer Connelly struggles to do something, anything with an underwritten mother of a cancer kid who crops up late in. (Yes, it’s the kind of tearjerker that falls back on dying kids.) Eva Marie Saint swings by to class up the joint for five minutes.
But no amount of pretty faces and living legends can make up for a drippy fantasy that crams the narration track with business about miracles and multiple claims about how “we are all connected.” It’s not a swooning romance; it’s the cinematic equivalent of a unicorn poster. It dares you to laugh at it, so you might as well oblige, even if you'll feel bad for it immediately after. But not that bad.