For those who haven’t read the Mark Helprin novel on which Akiva Goldsman’s film is based, prepare to be confused, annoyed, bewildered, and yet more annoyed by the director’s inability to construct even the most basic of narrative fantasy romances. I haven’t read Helprin’s novel, but many in the audience at the screening I attended had, resulting in gales of laughter aimed at this decidedly serious film. (Even I guffawed when the inappropriately cast Will Smith showed up as Lucifer himself.)
Farrell, charming as ever but apparently just as agog at the seemingly random plotting as every other actor here, is Peter Lake, an orphan set adrift, Moses-like, in the Hudson River in turn-of-the-century New York City. The next we see him, it’s 1916 and he’s being pursued by a mob of black-suited bullyboys who are led by crime lord Pearly Soames (Crowe, hamming it up with suitable gusto). Lake escapes by divine destiny – a brilliant white steed, with ethereal wings no less, comes to his aid – and he’s off to burglarize the home of consumptive beauty Beverly Penn (Findlay). Catching him in the act, she (naturally) serves him tea, ruminates on the nature of destiny, and, later, dies in his arms after a passionate bout of deflowering. All the while, a narrator intones that each human child is born with a miracle inside and, it seems, Lake’s miracle was to have saved the life of Beverly. So much for miracles.
We learn, by cloying dribs and drabs, that Pearly is a demon forever working to thwart these predestined “miracles,” and that the white horse is some angelic, universal force playing the opposite side, aiding the good-hearted. Cut to 2014 and Peter, looking just as fit and charming as he did a century before, wanders the streets of New York as an amnesiac, sketching chalk portraits of long-dead Beverly on the sidewalk and bumping into fate and destiny at every turn. Blond Hitchcock babe Eva Marie Saint makes a rather surprising appearance near the end, but it’s nowhere near enough to transform the ham-handed directorial debut of acclaimed screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (who can also be blamed for this film’s mythically awful screenplay) into anything but goofy, inexplicable dross. Targeted for a Valentine’s Day opening date, this particular Winter’s Tale is more like a total winter whiteout.