Naturally, love is all around now that the seasonal Valentine’s Day spirit is floating in the air. Of course, this means that Hollywood’s opportunistic pulse wants to tap into moviegoers’ affectionate hearts at the expense of box office-bound lovers everywhere. Thus, the emergence of writer-director Akiva Goldman’s whimsical romancer ‘Winter’s Tale’, a bloated and sugary supernatural period piece that hopes emotional audiences will eagerly digest with the enthusiasm of gulping down a box of chocolate candy kisses. Well, the so-called inherent sweetness in the saccharine-coated ‘Winter’s Tale ‘makes for a chilly, sour aftertaste.
Indeed, ‘Winter’s Tale’ is well-meaning in its message of elegance, opulent charm, amorous atmospherics and a curious and challenging mixture of Science Fiction, soap opera-esque drama and poetic mystery. Goldman’s nostalgic Harlequin-inspired narrative thrives to convey themes of a multi-faceted melodrama sloshing about in its earnest showcasing of romanticism. Instead, the wishy-washy ‘Winter’s Tale’ assumes the saggy skin of a sap-ridden spectacle involving, among other things, time-traveling and magical mischievousness. Also, along with countless gestures of lovingly eye-gazing and hugging we get our share of angelic and demonic overtones. How quaint, huh? The syrupy trivialities that make up the lyrical convictions for ‘Winter’s Tale’ is synthetically realised in a fetid fable that is unable to shake off its gooey goings-on.
It is inconceivable that Goldsman, the Oscar-winning screenwriter behind the masterful ‘A Beautiful Mind’, would start of his directorial chops with this tenderising tripe. Sure, a majority of romantic sagas are destined to cross over the boundaries of manipulation and mawkishness. However, ‘Winter’s Tale’ goes beyond its sluggish sentimentality as its fairy tale flimsiness overshadows what could have been an ambitious and adventurous love story with all the surrealistic trappings. Sadly, the varying elements that plague Goldman’s tearjerker makes for a cloudy concoction of identity. What does ‘Winter’s Tale’ rest its hat on being anyway? Is it a time-hopping romancer or Science Fiction dramatisation with head-scratching suspense? Plus, good luck if one can overlook the pretentious dialogue, glossy imagery set against cheesy emoting, sketchy special effects and the overextended cliched stroking of a feel-good, convoluted heart-warmer.
‘Winter’s Tale’ is based upon the highly-regarded Mark Helprin 1983 novel. It is 1906 and the Lake family experiences their first American setback, they are rejected at Ellis Island in New York and told they must head back to Ireland. In tow with the Lakes is their infant son, Peter. The parents want their baby to stay and be raised in America for better opportunities. So the plan is to send off Peter, via a model ship, to the shoreline of the Big Apple and pray that someone will look after him with caring intentions.
The following years have not been too kind for the now adult Peter (Colin Farrell, ‘Saving Mr. Banks’). For starters, Peter grew up as the adopted son of a gangster known as Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe). Secondly, Peter followed in his notorious father’s criminal footsteps as a master thief. Now tired of living the ‘thug life’, Peter yearns to straighten out his act and leave his urban surroundings for some idyllic lifestyle in the countryside. The trouble about Peter’s dreams is that Papa Pearly prefers that he stays put right where he is and abandon such hopeful notions.
Oh yeah, here is the kicker, Pearly Soames can add to his job description the role of a demon who answers to the hellish beat of the devilish taskmaster himself…Lucifer! It must be burdensome for Pearly to boss around his crime-loving cronies as the main big wheel one moment then moonlight as a miracle-buster for unsuspecting humans the next moment at the fiendish command of Satan. Specifically, Pearly’s expertise involves creating the ruination of indelible mortal souls (isn’t that agenda reserved for the broadcasting of ‘The Jerry Springer Show’?). Unfortunately for crime pup-turned-conscious-minded bulldog Peter, Pearly has his sights on eradicating his son once and for all. Hey, who says that demon gangsters do not have their share of priorities to consider?
A mysterious white horse (representing the angelic element most likely) rescues Peter as he is whisked away from the clutches of his demonic dad. The Pegasus is in reality a spirit-dog (remember folks., shoot the message of this dud, not the messenger delivering/reviewing the absurdity).
The burglarising urges start to takes its toll when Peter decides to break into the another house to finance his getaway. The property he steals from is owned by prominent publisher Issac Penn (William Hurt) whose sickly daughter Beverly (Jessica Brown Findlay from TV’s ‘Downton Abbey’) immediately captures the fancy of the love-struck robber. The movie begs the question: can Peter and Beverly’s attraction to one another survive the personalised turmoil that they both suffer? After all, he’s a targeted man on the run from Satan’s army and she has an uncertain amount of time left before her fragile condition claims her precious life. Besides, will they have time to feed their daring horse between uncontrollable bouts of smooching?
Preposterously, ‘Winter’s Tale’ flutters back and forth between tedious time zones and eras. Whether setting the exploits in the turn of the century or basing it in the modern contemporary years, Goldman’s clunky and pap-driven exposition is needlessly bogged down with its pat approach to lovey-dovey leanings while tackling the revolving door plots that range from hell-bound minions in attack mode to paying awkward homage to New York as some disguised history lesson of sorts. The combined overload of mush and mayhem feels woefully disjointed and disengaging. The questionable symbolism of love and struggles between good and evil is unbalanced and laughably sophomoric.
Farrell, saddened with a distracting Buster Brown haircut, tries to give this maudlin material some stability with his noble bid for pathos but he cannot overcome the hokey-minded heft. Findley does find some fitting ground as the vulnerable wide-eyed beauty not long for this world. It is quite amazing how many Academy Award-winning performers signed on the dotted line for this big screen vapid Valentine stain (veteran actress Eva Marie Saint, Jennifer Connelly and the aforementioned Crowe and Hurt). The only mildly interesting and consistent character that raised any legitimate eyebrows was the white horse’s encompassing mystique.
Winter’s Tale inexplicably leaves the bewildered Cupid with a dull arrow.
Winter’s Tale (2014)
STARRING: Colin Farrell, Jessica Brown Findlay, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Eva Marie Saint, Russell Crowe, McKayla Twiggs and Ripley Sobo
DIRECTED BY: Akiva Goldsman
SCREENPLAY BY: Akiva Goldsman
MPAA RATING: PG-13
RUNNING TIME: 118 mins.
DISTRIBUTED BY: Warner Bros. Pictures
CRITIC’S RATING: * 1/2 stars (out of 4 stars)