*/**** Image B+ Sound A Extras D+
starring Colin Farrell, Jessica Brown Findlay, Jennifer Connelly, Russell Crowe
screenplay by Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by Mark Helprin
directed by Akiva Goldsman
by Walter Chaw Cloud Atlas for the early buffet crowd, Akiva Goldsman's unsurprisingly dreadful Winter's Tale hits every single number in the legendary shipwreck lotto, vacillating wildly between unwatchable dreck and oddly-compelling unwatchable dreck. That it's badly-written is no shocker, given that it's Goldsman; the treat this time is that the awful script is matched by a horrific first-time director (Goldsman, too) whose dream it was to adapt an essentially unadaptable magic-realist novel by Mark Helprin that offers the again not-shocking glad-handing Carlos Castenada philosophy of healing light and Manifest Destiny. Just like Cloud Atlas, it's killed most any desire I may have held to read the source material (which I'm sure is a pity), but unlike Cloud Atlas it resists employing yellowface to make its point. That's an improvement. Not an improvement is casting Will Smith as a monologue-delivering Lucifer--yes, that Lucifer; Eva Marie Saint as a 110-year-old woman; and young Jessica Brown Findlay, a casualty of "Downton Abbey", who boasts the sucking void of the vacuous and the genuinely uncharismatic. To be fair, she doesn't get a lot to work with.
The daughter of dignified nouveau philosopher Isaac Penn (William Hurt), Beverly (Findlay) is beautifully dying of largely symptom-less consumption when rakish ruffian Peter (Colin Farrell) is enraptured by her piano-playing whilst sacking her mansion. Peter has a Pegasus and is being pursued by the forces of evil, led by bowery Beelzebub Pearly (Russell Crowe), who draws bad sketches with the blood of virgins and has occasional, embarrassing conversations with the Fresh Dark Prince in some kind of sewer. Winter's Tale sprawls across a hundred years, includes a Patch Adams cancer baby, and is the answer to the trivia question (like Youngblood is for Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze) of the other time Crowe, Goldsman, and Jennifer Connelly worked together. If I've neglected to mention the adorable little sister (Mckayla Twiggs) who builds a magical fairytale rape nest in the greenhouse, well, it's probably for the best. It seems that Peter is destined to save a young red-headed girl, Charles Schulz scholars take note, and it's the Devil's job to keep that from happening. Also: Manhattan.
Goldsman directs like he writes, in visual platitudes and ejaculations of unearned pathos. It's like learning to shoot movies exclusively from Ron Howard--exactly like, as it happens. Note an early moment in a music room with so many lens flares it's as if J.J. Abrams threw up in there. The danger of any dream project is that it tends to lack perspective; the promise of any Goldsman project is that it will pander to the lowest common denominator and be notably free of subtext. Marry the two and the result is a hilarious bastard of a flick. The most obvious of a phone-book full of problems for Winter's Tale is that whatever complexity there is in the source, Goldsman isn't equipped to suss it out ("Let's make it about the love story!"), and in pursuit of casting the biggest names in his Rolodex, he ends up with all-time boners like Colin Farrell declaring that he's not all that experienced in this love business. As soon as his sex tape stops buffering, I'll be the judge of that. Discordant at its best, Winter's Tale is the prime example of the sweet schandefreudian justice of a mega-successful and commensurately untalented artist allowed to pursue his white whale on a grand stage. Thar she blows, indeed.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Winter's Tale lands like a lead balloon on Blu-ray Disc in a 2.40:1, 1080p transfer sourced from a digital negative, meaning the image is as smooth and featureless as what you might expect from Akiva Goldsman's directorial debut. If Goldsman paints roses, he does so with an airbrush and leaves off the thorns. It's hard to fault the presentation, which is rich in alternating warm sepias and cool blues and rings with fidelity, but it looks flatter than a pancake on the small screen--although that actually works as a breed of self-awareness. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track highlights a well-modulated but reserved mix. A late scene with the Pegasus cracking ice fills the rear channels even as the spectacle of it fills the viewer with shame.
"Behind the Scenes" (6 mins., HD) finds cast members and Goldsman in junket mode, with Findlay opining in that particularly embarrassing way of pretty girls who've never had anyone tell them they should read a book before opening their mouth. Catch the looks of condescending rapture Farrell casts her way whenever she says stuff like, "I rather think it's about love...or something like that!" I don't mean to be unkind, but someone should do the right thing by her. "Characters of Good and Evil" (9 mins., HD) allows the creepily unctuous/energetic Goldsman to talk about how light is like a character in his film...along with New York, which makes sense because nothing else is like a character in his film. An interminable block of "Additional Scenes" (12 mins., HD) consists mainly of extended scenes and a moment with a mute, noble Native American couple on a beach, saving a baby from the ocean, that would've made the already excrescent just that much more so. There's no commentary track, which goes farther in proving the existence of God than anything in Winter's Tale. The disc does, however, come with DVD and cloud-based copies of the flick.