Some movies take a long and circuitous route to cult infamy, from a chance viewing by a tastemaker to sold-out midnight showings presided over by a delusional auteur. Some movies hit their notoriety out of the gate, baffling viewers with a very simple question: “How the fuck did anyone allow this to happen?” 2014’s magical realist romance Winter’s Tale is one of the latter.
Tagline: This is not a true story. This is true love.
More Accurate Tagline: This is not a true story. True stories generally make at least a lick of sense.
Guilty Party: Akiva Goldsman is a legitimate Hollywood powerhouse. He’s written some terrible movies that a lot of people have seen for some reason and has produced other, different terrible movies that a lot of people have seen for presumably the same reasons. This is sometimes known as the Blueprint of Hollywood Success. He cashed in some of this power to create a true passion project, adapting the novel Winter’s Tale and serving as writer, director, and producer of his own film. This makes Winter’s Tale an anomaly in the modern blockbuster era: a true auteur project. It’s also completely insane and borderline unwatchable, also marks of about half auteur films.
The movie opens by bouncing between times like Marty McFly after he got into the Ritalin. First, there’s 2014 New York, where Colin Farrell is a surprisingly clean homeless Jesus who lives in a ceiling room in Grand Central Station. Then we’re in 1895, where a family of immigrants from The Old Country try to get through Ellis Island only to find that they’re not wanted. Instead of returning to the pogroms and potatoes (oh god, the endless potatoes), they put their infant child in a model boat, complete with nameplate “City of Justice” (because fuck you, subtlety), and set him adrift in the harbor.
Through it all there’s some narration in an English accent (we find out later this is the voice of Beverly Penn, the female lead), babbling about magic or some such. The 1895 scenes and the vanity cards are all in sepia and I’m already exhausted.
Then it’s 1916, so for anyone keeping track, 37-year-old Colin Farrell (assuming his imdb page isn’t shaving points) is playing 21-year-old Peter Lake. Now, Farrell doesn’t look bad for his age, but he’s not a young 37. He’s a partied-a-lot 37. He’s running from a gang of thugs led by scarred kingpin Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe). Pearly’s mad about… something. Peter escapes when he happens on a white horse that can fly on CGI rainbow wings. Yes, that’s about as much preparation as you get for that.
Meanwhile, the wealthy Penn family is dealing with elder daughter’s Beverly’s tuberculosis. For some reason, the movie seems to think that consumption and the slow transformation into the Human Torch are the same thing, because Beverly is literally being boiled alive. She has to sleep in a tent on the roof (it’s winter, you know, because of the title), and takes chilly baths. Her dad, William Hurt, is concerned in that weary way that William Hurt feels everything. She thinks her fever gives her superpowers, but it only lets her see CGI lens flare.
Pearly, still upset, puts a bounty on both Peter and the horse, which he claims is actually a dog. This later gets “explained” by Graham Greene’s character (who shows up to be Native American), as the angel known as the “White Dog of the East” appearing as a horse. I’m sure this is the kind of thing that sounds so brilliant and magical on the page, but seriously, just pick a goddamn animal. Either it’s a horse or it’s a dog, but don’t call it a dog unless you’ve been hit so hard on the head that the word “horse” leaked out along with your ability to control your bowels.
Influenced by the White Dog of the East, Peter breaks into the Penn household and meets Beverly. They flirt and fall in love. Yes, it’s just that fast. Graham Greene also tells Peter about how everyone has a miracle and each miracle is intended for one other person. Angels and demons will try to influence this one way or the other.
Pearly draws up a truly terrible sketch of who everyone assumes is Beverly, and sends his people out to look for her. Around here, it becomes clear that Pearly is actually a demon disguised as a gangster. Somehow his awful sketch leads the demons directly to Beverly, but then Peter rides up at full tilt out of nowhere and saves her. They ride upriver to the fancy Penn house, where William Hurt warms up to him (motif!) after they fix the boiler (motif!) together.
Pearly is upset, so he visits The Judge (more on him later). See, demons can’t go upriver because stories like this always have bullshit “reasons” that the supernatural creatures can’t do whatever. The Judge shoots him down, so Pearly gets an angel who owes him a favor to spike Beverly’s drink. All it will do is raise her heart rate if she gets excited. So, when Peter takes her on a romantic journey to Pound Town, she dies. Her little sister Willa had a special “princess bed” made in a greenhouse, and said if Beverly’s kissed there, she’ll recover. Peter takes her there, but nope. She dies.
Angry, Peter rides into town and confronts Pearly, who seems to think his own head is a fist. He headbutts Peter into submission then throws him in the Hudson. Peter crawls out, and loses his memories until 2014. Now he’s drawing a version of Pearly’s crappy police sketch.
One day in the park, he runs into single mom Jennifer Connelly (she has a name, but seriously, who cares, this is the last half hour) and her adorable moppet who is dying of cancer, because fuck it, we’re in a Nicholas Sparks novel now. It turns out that the little girl is who the picture is really of, so Peter’s miracle might be for her. So with the help of the horse, he’s going to fly the little girl to the princess bed, where he’s going to kiss her cancer away.
And look, I like Colin Farrell. He’s been in a couple really good movies, and he’s been great in them. But you can’t have him kissing a little girl on a bed and not have it sound fucking horrifying.
Pearly senses that Peter is still alive somehow, and he gets permission from The Judge to fight Peter. Problem is, he’ll have to do it as a mortal. So Pearly rolls up on Peter just outside the Penn house on a frozen river. Only Pearly, like a dipshit, shows up with six carloads of goons. That’s when the horse shows him one of the principles of frozen water, by jumping on it until it cracks and spills the bad guys into the drink. Then Peter and Pearly fight, which ends when Peter shanks him with the “City of Justice” nameplate.
Pearly turns to snow… I don’t know, magically or whatever. Peter takes the little girl inside, kisses her better, and that’s his miracle. See, Beverly’s miracle was just making him love so much he didn’t die, I guess, and so he could save the cancer girl. Then Peter flies up and is a star.
Life-Changing Subtext: Everyone gets a miracle, but if you’re a woman, it’ll only be about helping a man do something cool.
Defining Quote: From the opening narration: “What if, once upon a time, there were no stars in the sky at all? What if the stars are not what we think? What if the light from afar doesn’t come from the rays of distant suns, but from our wings when we turn into angels.” I think I read this on a Precious Moments figurine one time.
Standout Performance: Russell Crowe is terrible, but man, he’s entertainingly terrible.
What’s Wrong: Even if you hold with the glacial pacing and the magical realism hokum, the movie goes wrong in some weird ways. The accents are fucking bizarre. In the most obvious, you have Colin Farrell doing his standard Oirish brogue. Only he’s the child of Eastern European immigrants raised an orphan in New York. It’s implied that Russell Crowe raised him (though after Graham Greene also raised him), and Crowe is doing a straight-up Lucky Charms accent. So we’re supposed to think that’s how it happened?
It’s not confined to them. William Hurt does his American Standard accent and his daughter could not have been more British if she’d been played by a crumpet. Does Goldsman think we pick our accents out of a hat?
Ages are pretty problematic as well. Crowe is only 12 years older than Farrell and he’s supposed to have raised him. Okay, he’s an immortal demon, so maybe that works out. But again, Farrell is supposed to be 21, and he’s romancing Beverly, also 21. That’s fine. The actress is 13 years younger than Farrell, and she’s British prep-school young. It’s a skeevy old man trying to hook up with a virginal apple-cheeked shut-in. But you know, romance!
Flash of Competence: The sets are really nice, and some of the shots of 1916 New York are legitimately beautiful.
Best Scenes: There’s a character in the film called “Cecil Mature.” He appears twice, first when Peter gets the horse and wants to board him, then later to help Peter run into cancer girl. Cecil Mature is what happens when a writer sees the idea of the “Magical Negro” and goes, “That’s an incredible idea!” Seriously, if they replaced the character with a coin, maybe with a plot point scribbled on it, there would be no difference in the film.
Come to think of it, that’s the purpose of every non-white person in this movie. And non-male person as well.
Okay, it’s time to talk about The Judge, since that’s the big cameo here. It’s Will Smith. And it’s not even Will Smith playing a character. He’s even wearing pretty much what you imagine Will Smith wears in his day to day life. The anachronistic clothes are supposed to be a nod to the fact that he’s Satan — yeah — but it comes off like they found him wandering in the parking lot and decided to put him in the movie. Pearly refers to him several times as “Lou” which is exactly the kind of flourish idiots think is clever.
Transcendent Moment: The sketch. Oh, god, the sketch.
Pearly initially paints it in the blood of a waiter who refused a request for spotted owl (don’t ask). It’s about at the level of a two-year-old with motor neuron disease discovering fingerpaints for the first time while in the middle of an earthquake. Eventually, it becomes apparent that this is a sketch of the back of someone’s head. Also known as the part of the head without the identifying bits.
That’s what this dumbshit was sending his goons out to find. The back of a woman’s head, and then he had the temerity to be shocked when they got the wrong person.
Winter’s Tale oozes with sincerity in every frame, and along with its other surreal miscalculations, makes its early reputation as a famous trainwreck entirely deserved.