Winter's Tale. Reviews were almost uniformly negative -- some scathingly so -- but I thought there was too much positive going on to make it that bad. Was I correct? Well, there are positives, but when it's bad.....it's bad.
In New York City in 1916, Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) is an accomplished thief who's run into a bit of trouble. In the city, he has no rivals, but a former boss and mentor of sorts, Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), wants him dead, and he's willing to pay a hefty price to get it done. Every job Peter pulls off, he's being hunted by Pearly's criminal underworld thugs. Picking a safe at one luxurious NYC house, Peter is surprised to find the supposedly empty house not empty at all, a pretty 21-year old woman, Beverly (Jessica Brown Findlay), dying of tuberculosis and already having outlived the diagnosis from her doctors. Beverly doesn't scream or freak out, Peter undone some by her response. Instead, she invites him to sit down for tea, and they talk. Their connection is instantaneous, their attraction evident from the first words they share though. It almost feels like the universe has brought these two young people together for a reason. Could something be going on with far bigger implications? Are they meant to do something special?
I saw the trailers for this romantically-charged period piece this past fall and was intrigued. It looked sappy and overdone -- like Valentine's Day bait at most -- but I was intrigued. It was a love story that didn't look too cheesy. 'Tale' is based off a 1983 novel from author Mark Helprin, and it's rocking 4 out of 5 stars currently at Amazon (buy it HERE, because Amazon needs my help). As the release date drew closer, I was actually looking forward to seeing it. The premise -- and there's far more than my simple plot description above -- of 1910s New York City, a criminal underworld connection, true love, lost love, and quasi-time travel seemed like literature at its best, or at least something that appeals to me. It sure sounded like the Pete Hamill novel 'Forever' in some ways, a favorite of mine. And the end result? Wow. I don't know exactly where to start.
There is potential here. There is, but there is also a reason critics are tearing it to pieces. My favorite review goes to Richard Roeper -- read HERE -- who certainly enjoyed bringing up all the most cringe-worthy moments. This is a story about true love, the universe, good and evil, miracles, destiny, finding a purpose in life, accomplishing what you're supposed to accomplish. All well and good, right? Sure, it's a lot to deal with but it certainly could have worked. It doesn't. 'Tale' is too dreamy, too loving, too sugary sweet with voiceover narrations about stars, people dying and becoming stars, about angels ascending and descending from Earth and Heaven and Hell. The basic premise is that true love brings out a true miracle in everyone. Everyone has that one miracle, that one thing in life that is pure and good and perfect. In many cases, it's love. Crowe as Pearly is a demon who's job is to prevent those miracles. Working against him are creatures and beings trying to help individuals complete their mission.
Yeah, and there it goes. Things start to disintegrate quickly, and yes, there's just too much going on. The creature helping Peter accomplish his miracle -- is it to save Beverly? Hhhmmm, I don't know.... -- is an immaculate white horse that Peter calls 'Horse,' but it sounds dreamy with an accent. Oh, and the horse flies, sprouting wings as necessary to escape dangerous situations. Pearly especially wants to kill the horse. Oh, and Pearly says the horse is "actually a dog" which...we...never...actually...see. And it's never explained. Crowe overacts like his life depends on it, similarly rocking an Irish(?) accent, his demon turning into a maniacal-looking animal when it gets angry. Pearly also visits a special guest two times, Lucifer himself played by Will Smith. Yes, you read that right. Will Smith. His Lucifer has a touch of gray, wears big, gold earrings, a stylish black blazer and in 1916 NYC wears a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt. The scene where he blows up on Pearly, reprimanding him for an idea, is laughably bad. I'm assuming it was meant to be a big, frightening dramatic moment, and I laughed. Out loud.
What did work for me was the crux of the story, the relationship between Peter and Beverly. I'm a Colin Farrell fan so that helps, but the character is interesting. His backstory is glossed over too much (including an 1895 "flashback" and one scene with wise Indian Graham Greene) and his hair is just odd, but it is interesting, the doomed anti-hero (relative, he's a nice thief) trying to save his love. A twist about 3/4 of the way through the movie has him doomed to walk the Earth not knowing who he is, not able to remember who he is or why he's been forced to do this, but the high points for the character are his scenes with Beverly, Brown Findlay having a solid chemistry with Farrell throughout. Again, I liked the premise, the doomed lovers trying to reverse that doomed quality, to make things right. In execution, it doesn't always work well. There's simply too much going on, the story trying to be an end-all declaration on everlasting love. Helprin's novel is pretty massive so I'm assuming lots of exposition, explanation, development, maybe whole plotlines were excised. What's left is a shell of what could have been a good movie.
But the star power! The Star Power! The supporting parts are in name only, the script not doing anyone any favors, but the acting is surprisingly bad. William Hurt is awkwardly odd as Isaac, Beverly's worrying father who sleepwalks through his part, including one painfully forced scene with Peter where they discuss grammar and pronunciation. Jennifer Connelly is really over the top as Virginia, a single mom with a daughter (Ripley Sobo, a good little actress) dying of cancer in 2014 NYC who meets Peter, not questioning too much what's going on. And in the Hollywood legend department, Eva Marie Saint plays an old woman in 2014 who Peter meets and may have known before. Also look for Kevin Corrigan and Kevin Durand as two of Pearly's henchmen.
Bad is one thing, forced bad is another. The script in first-time director Akiva Goldsman's film makes some odd choices. Eva Marie Saint plays an editor-in-chief of an NYC newspaper who if my math is correct, is 104 years old!!! In the newspaper business!!! The universe "providing" is one thing, but come on. I'm really wavering here. I genuinely liked parts of this movie, but when it flops, it does so in a big way. I'm not going to recommend it, not as a genuinely good movie, but I also won't rip it as the all-time bomb it's being made out to be. Just don't go in expecting the skies to open up. You'll get some laughs out of it for sure. Intentional laughs? I doubt it. A two-star review teetering on less.
Winter's Tale (2014): **/****