We already covered the type of bad filmmaking that makes one squirm in their seat and beg for meager runtimes earlier this month, but that's only a mere gradient on the great color wheel that is awful cinema. What we have in Winter's Tale is a much more enjoyable shade of putrid, the “how did this get made?” variant, remaining utterly watchable even as it self-immolates before your very eyes. It’s the directorial debut from screenwriter Akiva Goldsman and has all the visual polish of his best work with Ron Howard and a game cast doing their best, but none of this can distract from the unfortunate truth that this film plays like Gabriel Garcia Marquez filtered through used toilet water.
I'll attempt to summarize its plot here, but it may prove as unwieldy a task for me as it was for Goldsman: Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) is a young orphan lowered into the sea in a model boat outside of Ellis Island by his exiled parents (my expectations lowered alongside him with this ridiculous opening salvo) who grows up to become a master thief, which by this film's standards apparently means a man with a grappling hook and taste for silverware. Peter's run afoul of Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), a derby-sporting gangster with an Irish accent that doesn't so much strain credulity as shatter it with a shillelagh, who means to kill him. Luckily, Peter is rescued by a magical horse and escapes certain death only to discover Beverly Penn (Downton's Abbey's luminous Jessica Brown Findlay) in the middle of robbing her home in the meet-cutest meet-cute in the history of meet-cutes. And it must be mentioned here that if the film has any success at all, it will be due to the very natural chemistry struck between Farrell and Findlay, whose fine work together is shunted off to the side for far too much of the running time.
Unfortunately, Beverly is dying of consumption so we know this love is doomed from the get-go, but that doesn't stop the universe from conspiring to make it so anyway. It's here I have to mention that Crowe's Pearly is not just an Irish gangster, but also an eternal demon whose job on earth is apparently to prevent miracles from happening by consulting with Lucifer (an unadvertised bit part from a major actor) in the sewer system while also keeping tabs on Peter's location via the magic light given off by the jewels he's stolen. So the lines between good and evil are drawn, and it becomes a matter of which side can generate the most plot contrivances in order to get their way. (Put money on the spacehorse.) The story shows the only two things that can live forever are true love and terrible Colin Farrell haircuts. I could go on, but I'm operating on a word count and want to leave some of the film's myriad moronic surprises for you to discover on your own.
As a person completely unfamiliar with the source material, I still get the feeling that this adaptation of Mark Helprin's novel is playing extremely fast and loose with the source material. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, different mediums and all that, but when the end product gallops through its third act like so many spacehorses, it's easy to tell that we've wound up lost in translation. We're introduced to Jennifer Connelly's Virginia Gamely and her dying daughter Abby pretty late in the game, and the complications have already piled on to a ridiculous degree, but the cursory effort made towards having us care about these new characters (She's dying! She hates vanilla ice cream!) is an insult to character development.
While the film builds a world of magic that I can in no way buy into, the fact that a film so wrong-headed and nonsensical could have been made with so many millions of dollars thrown behind it and a cast of a heavy-hitters committing so thoroughly does make me believe that there is magic in our world, just not the kind Akiva Goldsman was aiming for.