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The moment I got home from my screening of "Winter's Tale," written and directed by Akiva Goldsman, the first thing I did was download the novel to my Kindle so I could read it. I made it four chapters before I set it aside, satisfied that whatever my problems are with "Winter's Tale" have little or nothing to do with Mark Helprin or his book. Mr. Helprin, you are free to go.
This is one of those books that people don't just like… they love it. It is important to them. When you talk to a fan of the book, they get evangelical about the experience they had reading it. I get that. There are plenty of books that have done that to me, and there are a few of them that I have considered trying to adapt as screenplays. The hard part of that is realizing that sometimes the very thing that makes you fall in love with something on the page may not translate in any direct way to film, a far more visual media. There are things I have read in books over the years that positively devastated me, but I am well aware that the power of the reaction I had is due in no small part to the language used, the precision of the way words are deployed, and something that is piercing as a metaphor becomes somewhat dopey when you see it brought to life by actual people.
The most difficult thing about "Winter's Tale" is that you can tell the entire cast is giving it everything they have. They believe in the film they're making. You cannot accuse this of being indifferent corporate product. There is an overwhelming sincerity about the way the story is told that, if anything, only makes it more embarrassing to see how completely and utterly they missed the mark.
And, let's be clear… when I say "they," what I really mean is Akiva Goldsman. I don't have the same homicidal distaste for him that much of nerd-dom does. I think "Batman and Robin" is a terrible movie, but it's a case of someone having a complete tin ear for something and no one else on the project noticing. It's happened again. The sad part is that this is a pet project for him, something he has been deeply invested in getting produced, and whatever failings the film has fall squarely on his shoulders. He has adapted this to such a degree that it is basically an original work now, his response to the feeling he had when he read "Winter's Tale" as a book.
And unfortunately, "Winter's Tale" is the "Batman and Robin" of magical realism.
Five minutes into the film, I had a sinking feeling. I feel like films that grapple with theology can either tend to the esoteric or they can end up being overly complicated or they can take the tact this film does: they can end up being gooey, pandering, simple-minded garbage. And in the final five minutes of the film, they wrap it all up with some narration that made me violently angry. It is the sort of feel-good affirmation garbage that can only be delivered or believed from a position of enormous privilege. When you start babbling about destiny and fate and say something like "What if the universe loves us all equally, so much so that it bends over backwards across the centuries for each of us?" Well, what about it? Sounds great. How about we go to a pediatric cancer ward and you can explain it to all the children there who are dying? Or maybe we could sit down with survivors of sexual abuse, and you can tell them how everybody gets to be a star and it's all going to work out just fine. Maybe you can explain to me sometime how your philosophy accounts for the vast majority of people who don't get what they want and who the universe truly could not care any less about, because I'm confused.
When true love appears for you on a silver platter delivered by a magical horse with wings and more magic cures cancer and angels and devils are running around talking about miracles, it's pretty easy to assume the universe loves you enough to bend over backwards for you, but how does a chuckle-headed philosophy like that accommodate the pain and the suffering and the random horror that much of this planet faces every single day? The universe loves us all equally? Really? The end of this movie is an exercise in main characters getting everything they want and then some, all because of some convoluted magical intercession, and mainly because they're all pretty, certainly not because anyone in the film does a single thing that would mark them as special or good or in some way deserving, and while it's all played so earnestly that it hurts, I'm not sure how any of the nonsense that happens here is supposed to apply to the universal human condition in any way.
Sorry, Mr. Goldsman, but the universe does not deliver flying horses and magical cures to everyone, and nothing about your movie applies to the way real people live, so with all due respect… what the hell are you talking about?
The writer/director compounds his problems from the very start by trying to set up a flashback structure that doesn't help his story at all. When we first see Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), it's the present day and he's wandering around Grand Central Station in New York, poking into hidden nooks and crannies and coming up with photos and artifacts from his own past. We then jump back to the year 1895, when Peter's parents land at Ellis Island. They are turned away because his father has consumption, put back on the next boat out, and they decide to rig a model boat to carry their new-born infant back to New York. Never mind that it's a model and not an actual vessel designed to work on real water, and never mind that when we see his parents lower him to the water, they appear to be ten miles or so away from the shore and there's a lightning storm rolling in, possibly making them the worst parents in movie history. It's all so precious and so serious, and none of it really has anything to do with where we pick the story up in 1916.
By now, Peter has grown into Colin Farrell, and we see that he's being hunted in the streets of New York by Pearly Soames, played by Russell Crowe with an Irish accent so risible it sounds like he has a whole box of Lucky Charms in his mouth. Soames has been chasing Peter around New York for three years for some reason, and now he and his boys have got him cornered. And just as they're about to cosplay the race riot from "Romper Stomper" all over him, he finds a horse, and the film introduces the next bit of magical realism. And then there's another soon after, and another, and pretty soon, "Winter's Tale" is throwing a cascade of stuff at you, and none of it really adds up in a dramatic sense, but it's all obviously in service of something, and by the time the film pays off all these things ("Oh, wow, look, it's the nameplate his dad took off the model boat two and a half hours ago!"), it feels so laboriously mechanical, so over-calculated, that there's no wonder to it.