In the war between good and evil, everyone has a miracle they can use. In 1916, a Russian couple being turned away at Ellis Island apparently don’t know anyone with an extra miracle or two, and so they send their baby out to sea in a model ship. That baby grows up to be Irish, and a thief in the streets of New York City. Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), as he’s called, runs afoul of his mentor, the local crime boss, Pearlie (Russell Crowe), but just as Peter is about to get his noggin knocked in by henchmen, he’s rescued by a magnificent white horse. The horse can fly. Sometimes it sprouts glow-in-the-dark wings. But before revealing itself as a runaway spirit guide from Native American, or ancient Celtic, or bad-anime culture, the horse takes Peter on his rounds as a burglar. Peter burgles the house of a publishing tycoon (William Hurt), and that’s how he meets the tycoon’s ethereal daughter, Beverly (Jessica Brown Findlay). It’s a sweet scene, but Winter’s Tale becomes only more preposterous and confusing from there.
Borrowing elements from Somewhere in Time (the Harlequin-simple yet enduring time-travel love story from 1992) only shows how effective the Christopher Reeve weepie actually was in avoiding laughable gaps in logic. Winter’s Tale doesn’t even muster a believable framework. During a nasty fistfight on a frozen river, the horse descends from some intergalactic fairyland, and—in one of the script’s more inspired bits of dialogue—Peter has only this to say: “OK, Horse, you know what to do.” And thus Peter Lake is saved . . . from slipping on the ice.
Hopefully, Findlay didn’t die in Downton Abbey just so she could die even more gauzily in this lazy, fuzzy claptrap. The directorial debut of veteran screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, Winter’s Tale hasn’t a clue as to what it wants to be about, or what makes narrative sense, or how to evoke romantic predestination, or how to utilize any of the dozen or so fantasy tropes that it trots out to fill in the blanks of a story that has only one reason for being: a charismatic street ruffian falling in love with a beautiful, mystical heiress just in time to not be able to prevent her sweetly anticipated death.
Even readers of the Mark Helprin novel this film’s adapted from will have trouble following the stumbling hops of plot, while everyone else will be too irritated by its ersatz magic-realist trappings to care. (Spoiler alert: When people die, their souls become stars.)
Some of the more preposterous padding includes a demon street gang, Will Smith as Lucifer, and Jennifer Connelly as the 21st-century journalist that Peter meets after he time-travels to the present day (where, most incredulously of all, he apparently finds a barber to give him the same ungainly haircut he had a century before).
Farrell manages to be sincere without snickering; Findlay appears blissfully unaware that she is up to her ringlets in cinematic manure; and Crowe’s mannerisms as the simpleton crime boss are so glaringly bad that it must be intentional. Despite winning an Oscar for adapting the script for A Beautiful Mind, Goldsman has always had his detractors. After this sappy hack job, they will be legion.