‘Winter’s Tale’: Slushy

February 12, 2014

winterstale

Akiva Goldsman’s track record is a spotty one, chockablock with commercially successful films full of formulaic writing and manipulatively sentimentalized emotion. Or just plain hogwash: “Batman & Robin,” anyone?

Sure, he won an Oscar for Ron Howard’s “A Beautiful Mind,” as middlebrow a choice as you could get in a year where “Shrek,” “Ghost World,” “Lord of the Rings 2” and “In the Bedroom” were its competition.

Having made his pile adapting the best-sellers of Dan Brown to the screen, here comes Goldsman with what is obviously a passion project: a film based on Mark Helprin’s 1983 novel, “Winter’s Tale,” an exercise in magical realism set in past and present-day New York. Helprin’s book is a tad precious, but Goldsman has no trouble schmaltzing it up in a way that undercuts the magic, while calling attention to the massive effort he needs to create the kind of wizardry that Helprin can do with a sentence or two.

The story itself sounds silly in outline form: A thief named Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), about to be killed by a gang of thugs led by a guy named Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), is rescued by a white horse that appears magically and whisks him away one day in 1914. On the run from Pearly, Peter robs a mansion on Central Park – and falls in love with a consumptive young woman named Beverly (Jessica Brown Findlay, the late Lady Sibyl on “Downton Abbey”) who lives there.

They fall so deeply in love that the vibe alone attracts Pearly, who seems to have certain hellish powers. So Peter and Beverly escape on his horse, to her family estate up the frozen Hudson River.

Peter decides his destiny is to miraculously save Beverly – and this is the kind of story where people keep repeating the notion that everyone has their own miracle to perform in life. They say it as though it’s conventional wisdom, like that one phone call you get when you’re arrested. Then the movie jumps to 2014 and – well, if it’s your destiny to see this movie (or if you’ve read the book), you’ll find out. But you will long since have stopped caring.

To his credit, Goldsman doesn’t go all Spielberg with his moments of magic; that’s not to say that the film isn’t awash in incredibly cheap-looking special effects. Between the phony snow on the soundstage mockup of a frozen river and the jerky computer visuals whenever the horse unsheathes its own personal magic, it looks like Goldsman went bargain shopping for visual effects.

He is nearly saved by his cast, a stalwart group capable of playing the hoariest kind of romantic melodrama with tears in their eyes and a catch in the throat. Farrell is particularly good; he could be one of our great tragic actors, if he could just find a movie that didn’t make him look like he’s swimming upstream against Goldsman’s river of syrup. The same is true of Brown, as well as William Hurt (as her father) and a still evanescent Eva Marie Saint, who turns up for a strong scene near the end.

As for Crowe: With a buzzcut, his head looks like a vicious jack-o-lantern atop his broad shoulders. He simmers and glowers convincingly – even when forced to play strange, “No Exit”-y scenes with Will Smith, as a bizarre character called the Judge. (Spoiler alert: He’s not really a judge.)

Goldsman’s cast nearly salvages the film from his ham-handed touch. But not nearly enough, given what long, slow sledding “Winter’s Tale” turns out to be.

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