A moony kitsch fantasy of the “everything is connected and everyone is special” variety, Winter’s Tale is as romantic as a Facebook-posted engagement photo, as opulent as a rehearsal dinner, and as profound as a greeting card. Its characters play Brahms, fly over New York City on a magic white horse, and babble endlessly about stars, miracles, and how stars are in and of themselves miracles. Digitally added twinkles, sparkles, and lens flares abound, and the movie’s end credits resemble a wedding photographer’s slideshow, sepia stills of Colin Farrell and Jessica Brown Findlay kissing and laughing on horseback overlaid with serif-font text while Hans Zimmer’s love theme—which features passages lifted from “The Star-Spangled Banner”—plays on. Though viewers may have trouble watching any of this with a straight face, the movie’s goofy corniness becomes marginally endearing, in a hobbling-puppy sort of way.
Adapted by A-list cornball Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind, Batman & Robin, The Da Vinci Code) from Mark Helprin’s 1983 novel, Winter’s Tale stars Farrell as Peter Lake, a Russian-born, New Jersey-raised burglar whose thick Irish brogue is neither acknowledged nor explained. Set mostly in 1916, the movie follows Peter as he falls in love with privileged, red-haired Beverly (Findlay) and battles the city’s head demon, Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe, also doing an Irish accent), with the help of the aforementioned horse. Peter and Beverly’s romance is notional; it registers as neither a real love nor a real tragedy, and instead exists largely as a way for the narrative to introduce and explore its convoluted cosmology, which involves magical gemstones, automatic drawing, love-induced immortality, miracle quotas, guardian angels (who seem to work exclusively in the service industry), and the complicated demon hierarchy overseen by Lucifer (Will Smith, wearing earrings as thick as thumbs and a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt).
For a movie so busy with matters both supernatural and sentimental (it contains not one or two, but three tragically dying characters—two with tuberculosis and one with cancer), Winter’s Tale is remarkably bare-looking, set on suspiciously empty New York streets and in noticeably underdecorated interiors. The “whatever was in the wardrobe department” costuming and mid-range effects, combined with the story’s haphazardly introduced fantasy, metaphysical elements, and use of a non-supernatural present-day observer (Jennifer Connelly), lend the movie the atmosphere of a lackluster Doctor Who Christmas special.
In certain ways, all of this resembles a less successful cousin to The Adjustment Bureau, George Nolfi’s similarly silly, Doctor Who-esque romantic fantasy. But whereas that movie boasted a charismatic, credible central couple and a sense of loose fun, Winter’s Tale has only its hokey metaphysical worldview and its vast array of maudlin clichés. It’s not, by any metric, a good movie, and yet, by the umpteenth green screen shot of Farrell smiling like a maniac while he flies through the sky on his magical horse, one can’t help rooting for it. A film this awkwardly sappy comes only once in a blue moon.