It is fitting that 2009's "Angels & Demons
" was Akiva Goldsman's last screenplay. For his feature directorial debut, he has made a motion picture involving these very supernatural figuresas well as magical flying horses, fateful miracles, and Lucifer himself as portrayed by a gruff, pierced, fire-and-brimstone-voiced Will Smith (2013's "After Earth
"). There is nothing wrong with a movie like "Winter's Tale" striving for heavy fantasy elements in the guise of a love story, but said fancifulness must be convincing and at least make contextual sense. Though Goldman, adapting from the 1983 novel by Mark Helprin, is not lacking in a certain tangible ambition, his finished product is an astounding failure of babbling, sticky-sweet moralizing, inexcusable plot holes and discrepancies, and a central romance that not for a second comes to life. The love between Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) and Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay) is supposed to be the kind of love that breaks the very rules of life, death and the universe at large, and yet their surface-ready relationship falls flat. This is an irreparable problem.
As an infant in 1895, Peter Lake was shipped off to the Brooklyn shores via a miniature sailboat when his parents were denied immigration to America. Twenty-one years later, he wants out of his adopted family's dirty business and is on the run from Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), the Irish gangster-demon who raised him. In the midst of robbing a thought-empty New York City brownstone, Peter meets the angelic, flaming-haired Beverly Penn, a young woman dying of consumption. Having fallen madly for each other in a matter of days, Beverly quite presciently declares, "If you don't make love to me now, no one ever will!" Peter's response: "Then that's exactly what I'll do." Minutes later, she's dead, and not long after the funeral he, in a scuffle with Pearly and his cronies, is tossed off the Brooklyn Bridge. Narrowly escaping drowning but with a sudden loss of memory, Peter lives on for another one hundred years, never aging and always one step ahead of the immortal Pearly. When memories that seem from another life begin coming back to him, his path crosses with that of The New York Sun
food columnist Virginia Gamely (Jennifer Connelly), who agrees to help him investigate his past. In doing so and meeting this kind woman and her gravely ill daughter, Abby (Ripley Sobo), Peter discovers a far larger destiny than he could have ever imagined.
"Winter's Tale" presumes to be about the greatest love the world has ever known, and yet all that Peter and Beverly do together before they're declaring their undying devotion is share a cup of tea and ride on a horse. The premise is convoluted but not hopelessthat is, until one discovers how little substance it holds and hears the off-puttingly flowery dialogue Akiva Goldsman has devised for his cast. "Can you love a person so completely that they can't die?" Peter asks Beverly's father, Isaac (William Hurt), during a heart-to-heart chat. When the elder man replies in the negative, Peter reasons, "But I'm a thief; can't I steal just one life?" This silly mumbo-jumbo gets wackier and even less plausible with Russell Crowe (2013's "Man of Steel
") tromping around while painfully chewing the scenery and intermittently getting a monstrous assist from CGI effects that morph his face into a minion's from the underworld. Basic timeline logic is tossed out the window as well, with Colin Farrell (2013's "Saving Mr. Banks
") far too mature to play a 21-year-old and Eva Marie Saint (2006's "Superman Returns
") in the role of an unlikely newspaper editor-in-chief who, if she was about seven in 1916, has to be at least 105 in 2014.
Colin Farrell commits to Peter and the heightened circumstances surrounding his character, but there is no overcoming the script he must follow. A human being who somehow defies the laws of nature and lives on for a century while eternally looking youthful suggests that he is somehow special. When the reason for his agelessness is revealed, it somehow causes this narrative leap to lose further legitimacy. Writer-director Goldsman does not adequately explore what Peter has been spending the last one hundred years doing (other than making chalk drawings of a mystery gal with red hair), or how he feels about his apparent immortality. As Beverly, Jessica Brown Findlay (TV's "Downton Abbey") looks radiant and not the faintest bit ill up until her abrupt last breath. This is more a fault of the film's make-up artists, but Findlay gets stuck in the middle and never quite persuades that she is looking death so harshly in the face. Her chemistry with Farrell is negligible, not nearly as potent as his work with Jennifer Connelly (2011's "The Dilemma
"). As Virginia Gamely, a mother searching for a miracle of her own, Connelly gives the movie's most consistently affecting performance. In turn, one wishes the story had gotten rid of all its pompous, mystical frills and been about Peter and Virginia, instead.
"Winter's Tale" is a handsome production, shot by Caleb Deschanel (2012's "Jack Reacher
") with frosty beatification, but the film is also a bit of a disaster. It is usually better to try and fail than to not put in an effort at all, but in cases like this where things go so wrong and become so superficial and overblown, it is difficult to sympathize. Cramming 672 pages into an under-two-hour running time, Goldsman's first job as director is exceedingly disjointed hokum without the attention to depth and detail to ring with the existential truth he's aiming for. The series of deus ex machina
wrap-ups strike as ludicrous rather than unexpected, and the would-be romantic center is, as mentioned, a non-starter. "This Valentine's Day, give her the perfect date," proclaim the movie's television spots. Avoiding "Winter's Tale" altogether would be a good start.