February is the dumping ground for two types of movies: star vehicles the studios know are duds (a la “The Monuments Men”) and efforts the studios have no idea how to handle — like “Winter’s Tale.”
By JON NICCUM
Special to The Star
This occasionally intriguing fairy tale is subject to wild mood swings. It mixes in Disney princess spunkiness, romance, time travel, religious allegories, terminal illness, violent fight scenes and Will Smith as Lucifer.
In other words, it’s a mess. But it’s an ambitious, distinctive mess.
Reformed bad boy Colin Farrell holds this beast together, once again revealing pensive humanity beneath outward rage. We meet his character, Peter Lake, as he’s running from thugs in the employ of Pearly (Russell Crowe), the resident Irish kingpin of 1916 Manhattan.
Crowe always walks into a room with his gray derby brim low, so he can then raise it to reveal his menacing, scarred gaze. He plays a variation on Javert from “Les Miserables” — thankfully, with no singing — whose life’s purpose becomes hunting down the hero, even though nothing in the story justifies such zeal. Admirably, Crowe is a hoot to watch.
Those of us who haven’t read Mark Helprin’s 1983 novel learn that Peter was an orphan raised by the wicked Pearly and has since opted out of the family business (whatever that is).
With few options aside from a white horse that materializes as a mystical ally, Peter breaks into a mansion to finance his getaway. There he is interrupted by luminous young heiress Beverly (Jessica Brown Findlay of “Downton Abbey”), who is dying of consumption.
Having nothing else to lose, she invites the burglar for tea.
“What’s the best thing you’ve ever stolen?” she asks during a genuinely captivating chat.
He gazes at her and replies, “I’m beginning to believe I haven’t stolen it yet.”
What follows is their quest to escape Pearly, cheat death and get back to the future! As Beverly helpfully explains, “Magic is everywhere around us. You just have to look.”
Just don’t look too closely. “Winter’s Tale” may be handsomely shot by five-time Oscar nominee Caleb Deschanel (“The Passion of the Christ”), but its high production values are in constant competition with its cheeseball special effects. With a budget upwards of $75 million, it looks like only a couple hundred bucks got left over for the flying horse. It’s 1980s bad, like something out of “Krull.”
First-time director Akiva Goldsman has made a career of writing or producing movies rife with demons, robots and superheroes. He’s had some big winners (“A Beautiful Mind”), big losers (“Batman & Robin”) and a slew of in-betweens (“I Am Legend,” “The Da Vinci Code”).
Here he corrals actors from past projects, such as Jennifer Connelly (who earned an Oscar for “Mind”) as an obliging journalist in the modern scenes and William Hurt (from his “Lost in Space” adaptation) as Beverly’s affluent father. He also recruits Will Smith to deliver his worst-ever performance as Pearly’s uber-boss, proving that a really famous star in a bit part is more distracting than beneficial.
But for a screenwriter-turned-director, it’s really Goldman’s writing that becomes most problematic.
In addition to the tonal discrepancies, his timeline makes no sense. The movie bounces between 1916 and 2014. Yet Peter runs into a modern character (played by Eva Marie Saint) who was a grade schooler in those past scenes and is now the head of a corporation. That makes her 106 or so. Then again, the 37-year-old Farrell is supposedly playing a 21-year-old.
It’s hard to orchestrate a movie about time travel if you don’t understand how regular time works.