The following piece contains complete spoilers for the film.
These days, movie trailers are such an exacting, cynical science that if you aren’t getting spoiled for the entire premise (or at least the whole first act – see: Iron Man) it’s reasonable to suspect that the studio has something to hide. Not necessarily a plot twist or a surprise cameo, though – usually they’re trying to hide the storyline itself, because they think if the audience knew what it was in for they wouldn’t show up.
This would seem to be the case with Winter’s Tale, (loosely based on a novel by Mark Halprin) whose trailer and Valentine’s Day release date promise little more than a succession of vaugely-connected Paperback Romance cover-imagery – Period Dress! Charming Rogue! Central Park at Dusk! Pretty Horse!!! – but which turns out to be one of the most bizarre (and bizarrely-terrible) big studio head-scratchers of the new century. The sort of film that might be dreamed up as a satire of a production run-amuck in a backstage Hollywood comedy, but terrifyingly (and yet, hypnotically) real. Cinemaphiles rightly bemoan the Studio Machine’s tendency to grind down and cast out genuine auteur brilliance, but in truth that is a side-effect of said Machinery’s true function of keeping movies like Winter’s Tale from happening.
As I rose from my seat a few hours ago, surrounded by other speechless, shell-shocked critics (including a similarly-baffled young woman, lest you think this a case of the Old Boy’s Club ganging up on a “girl movie”) fumbling for a description of what we’d just endured; the only encapsulation I could muster was that we’d witnessed Highlander as retold with Lisa Frank stickers by a 4 year-old girl to her plush dolls and then re-adapted back into a movie by Tommy Wiseau. Though it is quite plausibly one of those singular works of failed art that can only be properly critiqued by simply describing it; I recount it to you now less as an exercise in criticism and more as an act of psychological purgation. I am not so much a reviewer of this film as I am survivor… a veteran of Winter’s Tale. I recount my story so that I might be free of it.
The film stars Colin Farrell, whom we first meet as the baby of Russian immigrants being turned away from Ellis Island in the 1890s. They set him adrift in a model ship so that he, at least, might reach American shores safely. (The ship is marked with the copper nameplate “City of Justice,” which will turn out to count as this film’s version of subtle mythic allusions.) He grows up into a handsome thief/safecracker named Peter Lake (somehow saddled with an Irish brogue thicker than Farrell’s real one) who’s locked in some kind of one-man war with an army of pure-evil street thugs in matching bowler hats. (So that’s what happened to the Bad Gang from Newsies!)
This adult-newsboy Putty Patrol is led by Russell Crowe’s mumbling, scenery-devouring Pearly Soames, a scarred gangster who rants about “blackenin’ souls and crushin’ miracles!”, collects pilfered jewels and gold because he can use them to turn moonlight into prismatic future-telling holograms (seriously), and has sworn to kill Peter because the rapscallion tried to reform New York’s thief guilds to steal without killing people. For Soames, collateral-tragedy is the whole point of crime. Peter is rescued from certain death at their hands by a white horse that shows up out of nowhere, genuflects so he can mount it, and then jumps clean over the villains by sprouting Pegasus wings made of light-energy.
“Damn!” curses Soames, “He’s got The Horse.” Yeah. Later, Peter’s Magical Black Man friend will glance to Magic Horse and deadpan “I was wonderin’ when you’d get here.”
Peter wants to escape town, but Magic Horse tricks him into burglarizing one last “empty” mansion that ends up containing Beverly Penn, the angelic redhead daughter of a newspaper publisher who is dying from a strain of Ali MacGraw’s Disease that requires her fever-heated body to be kept ice-cold at all times… which she’s sort of okay with because fever-fits give her blurry lens-flare visions of “the connections between all things” and a self-assuredness that what we perceive as stars are actually the light from the Angel Wings of the departed. He falls instantly in love with her, which causes Soames to have a psychic vision of a red-haired girl and reveal himself (to the two or three people in the audience who haven’t figured this out yet) as a literal Demon From Hell whose job on Earth is to derail miracles – which he now suddenly believes includes stopping Peter and Magic Horse from curing Beverly with True Love’s Kiss.
I am not making a word of that up.
But Peter rescues her (Soame’s big Wicked Scheme was just to show up and stab her before Peter does whatever he thinks he’s going to do) thanks to his plot-convenient flying horse and spirits her to her family’s upstate lakeside estate; where he endears himself to her father by using his safecracker “machine-whispering” powers to stop a boiler explosion. He also befriends her younger sister, who has covertly turned the estate’s greenhouse into a facsimile of Snow White’s glass coffin – believing that it can be used by a Prince to revive her doomed sibling. They are safe from Soames, incidentally, because The Rules of, uh… being a demon, I guess, prevent him from leaving Manhattan. He’s even denied permission to go off script by Satan himself – who first appears as a booming, disembodied voice but is later revealed to be Will Smith.
No, for real: Will Smith shows up in an unbilled cameo as The Devil.
Anyway. Since he can’t do it himself, Soames bribes an Earthbound former Angel who he once helped turn human(???) to sneak upstate and dose Beverly with poison that will supercharge her sickness if she has sex… which she does, with Peter, and not even a mad dash to Little Sister’s Snow White Greenhouse can save her. While the audience tries to absorb that they are watching a big-budget Romantic Fantasy where Demon Russell Crowe tricks the hero into literally screwing his girlfriend to death, Soames confronts Peter, beats him to death using only head-butts and throws him off The Brooklyn Bridge…
…after which, Peter emerges from the water with Movie Amnesia and washes up onshore – otherwise unharmed – in the year 2014.
Well, actually, the film is kind of murky on this point – it’s possible that he washed up in his own time and then wandered NYC for 100 years as an immortal hobo compulsively making chalk-drawings until he runs into Jennifer Connelly as the mom of a cancer-stricken girl who just happens to be working as Food Critic Lois Lane (really!) for the very same newspaper not only founded by Beverly’s father but still owned and managed by the still-living, now-elderly Little Sister. Who somehow does not die of an immediate heart-attack upon meeting him even though she’d have to be hovering around 105 years-old by now. Also still kicking around all immortal-ish is Soames, except now his villain lair looks like a stock-market (zing!) and this time The Fresh Prince of Darkness gives him the go-ahead to take Peter out because… reasons!
See, with his memories restored, Peter catches a glimpse of Cancer Girl wearing a red head-towel and realizes that it’s been her – not Beverly – who he’s been destined to perform a miracle on this whole time. He summons Magic Horse (oh, hey! I just realized I forgot to mention that Peter trusts Magic Horse completely because his Wise Inuit Friend told him that it’s his “Spirit Animal Guide”) and they fly off on Light Energy Wings to the somehow still-standing Snow White Greenhouse…
But Pearly and his gang (I’m not 100% sure if they’re also supposed to be demons) arrive to stop them. Fortunately, Magic Horse uses a ground-type attack (It’s super effective!) to kill the foot-soldiers so Peter can have a Final Battle with Soames, cutting his throat with the “City of Justice” plaque (From the boat, remember?) which causes him to turn into snow because at this point why the hell not? This time, Snow White Greenhouse works and Cancer Girl is saved. Thus finally permitting Peter and Magic Horse to fly off into the sky and become a constellation with Beverly and virtually guaranteeing a few hundred thousand guys will end their Valentine’s Day evenings hearing the phrase “I’m soooooo sorry I made us go see that!”
…the things I go through for you people.
I don’t necessarily know that this kind of magical-realist fairytale storytelling is impossible to make work, but Winter’s Tale makes a compelling argument against it ever working this way. Grounding supernatural happenings in something like reality can make for an interesting aesthetic (think City of Angels) but the film can’t make up its mind whether to be sneaky or literal from beat to beat: Soames using jewels and gold like tea-leaves is a nice (if obvious) greed-as-dark-magic metaphor, but conjuring 3D light-maps of Manhattan by doing so just looks goofy in an otherwise authentic-looking period drama. Will Smith, all joking aside, is actually a great casting for Lucifer given his legendary charisma; and the film nods subtly to his supernatural stature via era-inappropriate clothing (a modern graphic-tee conspicuously peeks out from under his turn of the century dinner jacket) and time-displaced speech idioms… only to spoil it by having him also cast monster-shaped shadows and sprout Todd MacFarlane fangs when he’s angry. The effect is like Tom Hiddleston’s Loki showing up in the middle of The Dark Knight Rises – same genre, but the tones don’t go together.
And yet, I’m still tempted to hope that people turn out to see this anyway. Not because it’s good – it’s an abomination! – but because I’m presently convinced that it has the makings of a bad movie “institution” like Flowers in the Attic or Batman & Robin (whose infamous screenwriter, Akiva Goldsman, makes his directing debut with here); pop-culture signposts that can give otherwise perfect strangers something in common over which to connect. And in these increasingly cut-off, niche-driven times, we can always use one more of those:
“Where were you the first time you endured Winter’s Tale?”