by George Sax
You have to see it to believe it. Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman’s (A Brilliant Mind) first effort as a director is a failure too comprehensive to be conveyed in a brief review. But—and here I’ve got to lay a major caveat emptor on you—this is not to be construed as a recommendation to find out for yourself, even if you’re a connoisseur of the campy awful. This may be one of the worst big movies of the last 50 years, but it’s not bad in any redeemingly enjoyable way. For the very most part, it’s bad in a long-winded, carelessly written, and dreary fashion.
Adapted by Goldsman from Mark Helprin’s 1983 novel of the same title (which, in the movie at least, has nothing to do with William Shakespeare’s play), it’s supposed to be a time-defying romantic fable. Colin Farrell is Peter Lake, an orphaned but prodigiously deft burglar in First World War era New York City. When we meet him he’s desperately trying to escape from a large, black-clothed, armed mob led by a scarred, dapperly attired Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), fairly smacking his lips at the prospect of murderous violence. That purpose is frustrated when a white horse appears and carries Peter away in an impossibly high leap over a fence.
This magic steed also leads him to a rich, fatally ill young woman (Jessica Brown Findlay, from Downton Abbey) who’s never been kissed or gone to a dance. Need I say more about that? As Goldsman ineptly works all this and a great deal more out, the movie lacks even marginally amusing diversions. To be (reluctantly) fair, when Will Smith turns up as Lucifer, holed up in a large brick-walled vault in Lower Manhattan (no, really!) you might feel a twinge of hope. And later, when Pearly (did I mention he’s a demon?) seeks satanic permission to travel up to Westchester County to get Peter and Lucifer tells him to take care of himself (“You get used to people”), you might laugh in spite of yourself. But that’s about it. The rest is almost unrelievedly and sententiously serious and heavy going.
Goldsman seems to have been aiming for wistful, inspiring whimsy, but he landed on self-serious, sloppily plotted tedium.
There is a model for this kind of thing: William Dieterle’s 1948 Portrait of Jennie, another time-traveling romantic fantasy that the late Pauline Kael called “dumbfounded silliness,” but involving nevertheless. This plodding, wearying exercise is no cinematic descendent.
Watch the trailer for Winter's Tale
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