Akiva Goldsman has had one of the most bizarre careers in all of modern Hollywood. Up until "Winter's Tale" he has been a screenwriter, and his work has had this amazing ability to either be critical acclaimed, or legendarily awful. Somewhere on Goldsman's resume is a notice that he's won an Academy Award for writing "A Beautiful Mind", but probably someplace much further down, in much smaller font, are the facts the he wrote "Batman & Robin" and the even worse "Lost in Space"*. Well, despite of the acclaim "Cinderella Man" might have received in its initial release, I'll note that very few of Goldsman's creations have aged very well, even the ones that made money and won Oscars. My conclusion with this guy is that his Oscarbait is probably as tepid as his generic genre flicks. Ultimately history will probably remember him only as the writer of "Batman & Robin", which in a roundabout way, is his greatest creation.
"Winter's Tale" however, might actually give "Batman & Robin" a run for its place in history. This is Goldsman's first time as a director, and unfortunately, his talents clearly do not lie in natural conversations or orchestrating chemistry. More so, he seems to have pulled every string he possibly could, cashing in all of his industry clout that he's collected over the decades, finally to get his one dream project finished. "Winter's Tale" is a very dreamlike movie, in that it makes very little sense, the plot shifts dramatically, and completely impossible things happen constantly. Goldsman has taken his studios and financiers for a ride here, they are not going to get very much money out of this project. Filmgoers will be confused and lost. I suspect even the author of the original 1983 novel (which I haven't read, but I suspect has to make more sense than this) would probably be confused by this adaptation. "Winter's Tale" is so strange its existence is almost a dare to all movie lovers. "Come watch me, you will not believe your eyes." Well, I took up the dare. And I'm still not sure what it is that I just saw.
The marketing for "Winter's Tale" shows merely a romance between a thief and a dying redhead set in poetic Hallmark Card landscape Winter 1915 New York. But oh, "Winter's Tale" is so much more. The best way to understand what kind of movie we have here is by merely reciting the completely insane things that occur during the course of the film. Let me simply describe the opening. Our hero, Peter Lake, is the infant son of two Russian immigrants who were refused entry to the United States at Ellis Island. His father, played by the perpetually underused Matt Boomer, stole a model boat and dropped his baby into it, leaving him to float in the Hudson River on the bare hope that somebody will find the child in a very ill-conceived Moses allegory. Luckily instead of logic happening such as the model boat flipping over and the baby drowning, or it floating aimlessly for months with a cute rotting baby corpse on board, the baby is found.
He then grows up in Brooklyn and becomes Colin Farrell, complete with his natural Irish accent which is never explained or acknowledged. Farrel then is chased around by some old-timey gangsters in bowler hats, and escapes because he finds a magical white horse, who is really a Pegasus with fairy wings. And the leader of the gang? He's Pearly Soames, played by Russell Crowe with a terrible Irish accent, who is really a demon from Hell out to stop miracles.
By the way, the horse is really a dog. I am not making this up.
I am so glad I that I saw "Winter's Tale" in a theater entirely alone. I know there is etiquette to movie-going such as keeping your mouth closed, but "Winter's Tale" is the kind of movie that makes you shout "WHAT??" every few minutes. It is one of the most complex and bizarre movies I've seen in recent memory. It might be more of a mess than "The Last Airbender". I understand we're in a fairy tale New York that is just as much pure fantasy, but the movie is still incomprehensible and confusing, even as you would expect in this kind of genre you would leave your suspension of disbelief behind. There are all kinds of weird rules at play here: Pearly Soames cannot leave the Five Boroughs because of some demon law... until at the climax suddenly he can. Somehow Pearly has a fallen angel on his payrole. He can order mountains of oysters from a restaurant and murder a waiter without paying, all because the restaurant doesn't have South African owls. And then he draws prophetic symbols in the freshly spilled blood. We're never given any context for anything. If Akiva Goldsman was simply making up the entire movie as he went along, it could not have been more bizarre.
Eventually Peter Lake meets his red-haired love interest, Beverly Penn, played by Jessica Brown Findlay, who might be the prettiest thing I have ever seen in my life. Beverly Penn is dying of an illness originally called "The Fever", which I assumed had to be a fantasy ailment invented for this universe, but turns out to actually be Consumption (Tuberculosis). Her only apparent symptom is incredible body temperature, meaning she has to sleep outside in a tent. A bit of research tells me that sleeping outside actually was a common therapy for Tuberculosis in the early 19th century, though the main part was simply receiving fresh air which I suspect was in short supply in 1915 Manhattan. Beverly never shows any signs of being sick, not even the basic Hollywood trope of Incurable Coughs of Death. Peter Lake's and my own biological imperative to mate are in no way impeded by her supposed illness. All it means that she wears some nightgowns, doesn't put on too much make-up, and has messy hair, so she's even more alluring because of it.
Yes, she is SO HOT she is dying of it.
The problems come along when of course, Beverly and Peter have virtually no chemistry, and essentially their entire relationship is the very worst kind of romantic writing. They fall in love instantly, and suddenly the middle act of the movie is only about their love - every villain exists purely to get in the way. All they have to talk about is how much they love each other. And somehow this relationship will create a miracle that will ruin Russell Crowe's demonic plans. Luckily much of it settles itself, because SPOILERS Peter Lake literally fucks her to death. I'm still not making any of this up. Somehow he manages to explain why he is naked with a dead twenty-one year old to Beverly's family in a year barely outside of the Victorian Age without getting shot. And, may God strike me dead with lightning if I am lying to you, the sex was so good that Peter Lake is now immortal.
Then the movie continues in a final act set in 2014. Because Peter Lake is now an amnesiac that wanders the streets drawing a prophetic vision of a girl with red hair in chalk. Turns out in some mildly clever twists that Peter Lake still has to complete his task on this Earth. And let me just skip to the finish: he rides the Pegasus horse (who is really a dog) out to Space. THE END.
The conversations in "Winter's Tale" are often incredibly odd and unnatural. Maybe Farrell and Findlay could have built a proper romantic movie if only Akiva Goldsman had not failed them in directing. There is a wonderful weirdness to it all, such as Beverly melting the very snow she is walking on. But its undercut by the very strange pacing of the conversations. At one point Peter talks with Mr. Penn, played by William Hurt, and they discuss for a great deal of time who to pronounce words that end with "-et", like "chalet". This somehow leads to William Hurt telling him not to bone his young dying daughter. Russell Crowe's horrific accent does not help either, when the actor gets too excited his words blur together like he's Popeye. Then there's Beverly's creepy little sister, who acts hideously cute with every line, because Akiva clearly cannot direct children. In the hands of a stronger captain, "Winter's Tale could have been one of the best movies of the year. Still incomprehensible, but at least well-made. Instead it is simply a circus of fantastic wonders.
But are you ready for the best part? You're not ready for the best part.
This guy: plays THE DEVIL.
Its a casting choice so audacious it has to be genius, Will Smith is playing Lucifer. He sits around in a dark room beneath a park someplace, fit with various low-hanging light bulbs that he lights for some reason. And he's dressed in a traditional three-pieced suit, except instead of a dress shirt, he has a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt on. In 1915!! I was loving every second of this scene already as Pearly Soames begged the Fresh Prince of Pandemonium to kill Peter Lake, until suddenly Will Smith's face morphed into a bad CG demon face. Then I lost it. I think I popped a blood vessel I laughed so hard. For the rest of the movie ushers from the movie theater kept checking in on me, trying to figure out who this lunatic was in their theater. Sorry guys, I was having a good time. Sadly, the Will Smith Devil appears only twice, when obviously this idea is so brilliant it requires an entire trilogy.
"Winter's Tale" is so abnormal, but it is strange in ways beyond its fantasy universe. You are constantly confused by little details, such as the fact Manhattan is constantly empty of bystanders. The heroes and demons just have the run of the town, apparently nobody else is there. A flying horse (that is really a dog) with fairy wings flying all the way up to upstate New York arrives roughly the same time as a fleet of cars, driving up the frozen Hudson River in a brilliant maneuver to avoid Manhattan traffic. Apparently Central Park opens out to the Hudson River now? Which is always frozen? Beverly's little sister manages to survive into 2014, when she must be at least 110 years old, and still is running a newspaper. After Peter Lake has spent a century without memory, somehow he still has a very nice Manhattan apartment and a closet full of some lovely suits. He has no memory of even his name, so I'm not sure how he signed his lease. It is an amazingly confusing tapestry on every level. This is a Mandelbrot Set, the small details are as infinitely bizarre as the entire plot.
Here's where I'm tempted to recommend "Winter's Tale" despite everything. Akiva Goldsman is not a good director, that much is clear, but his movie is so fascinating that it almost has to be seen. The romantic plotline might be a sad begger pleading for screentime against the rest of the nonsense that is this movie, but it all adds up to something that is virtually indescribable. If you go see "Winter's Tale", you will laugh, you will shout many things at the screen namely "WHY??", but you will be entertained. Perhaps this is all a massive meta drama written by the greatest literary mind of our time.
But as I always say, "Never attribute to genius that which is adequately explained by stupidity." Even if Akiva Goldsman is the stupidest man on Earth, it doesn't matter. He's an auteur, he wanted to make his movie with all his soul, and God Bless Him he did. Bravo. It did not work, it was insane and ridiculous, but all in a loving way. Paul W. S. Anderson couldn't give two fucks one way or another. "Pompeii" stank of disinterest. If the producers don't care, why should I? "Winter's Tale" actually is a freakshow good time. As unintentional comedy, you won't do better this year.
* "Batman & Robin" is a movie the entire family can gather around and laugh at. All these years later it is still a wonder. We love it for being so awful. "Lost in Space" is simply depressing and miserable. Nobody remembers it, and nobody should.