Sunday, February 16, 2014


Full disclosure: okay, I've never read Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale, but I can't help but think there must have been more to the sprawling 700+ page magic-realism epic than meets the eye in the new movie version.

What was evidently a densely layered novel of lush prose and metaphysical pondering on destiny, good and evil, and the meaning of life, is reduced to a corny angels vs. demons scenario in screenwriter and first-time director Akiva Goldsman's unfortunate adaptation.

I actually bought the first half of the story, an unlikely but charming romance between Irish thief Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) and spunky consumptive heiress Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay) in turn-of-the-20th-Century New York City.

Mysterious flying white horse who appears out of nowhere to facilitate their romance? I'm there—let's get this party started!
Crowe: Don't get him angry.

But the fact that this horse mostly exists to save Peter's bacon time and again from ruthless, homicidal crime boss, Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), was a bit of a let-down.

So was the fact that we know in about two minutes that Pearly is a testy supernatural demon with a short fuse. Where's the mystery in that? The awed, chilling sense of discovery?

I was also disappointed to see Crowe overacting with such scenery-chomping glee, but I suppose if you're playing a demon whose face splits open like a volcano when riled, there's no point in being subtle.

(Also, why exactly does Peter retain Farrell's Irish accent? Since he's an orphan raised on the streets of New York, shouldn't he sound like one of the Dead End Kids?)

Still, what I loved about this section of the story were Michael Kaplan's costumes—especially the exquisite period gowns! The 1910s were a great time for women's fashion; hoop skirts and bustles were out, lines were long and clean, close-fitting but not tight, women could breathe and move.

Feast your eyes on some of Beverly's outfits, sigh!

And the party sequence, with dozens of women in ball gowns? Holy Moly!

So it wasn't until the narrative jumped ahead 100 years into the present day that the whole looney-tunes affair fell apart for me. Nothing makes any sense, not even within the story's own fantastical/magic-realism context, and whatever might have given these scenes romantic or philosophical resonance (let alone narrative cohesion) in the book has been distilled out.

Peter has no memory of his previous life, but does that mean he hasn't racked up any other memories during the intervening century either?

Hasn't he ever wondered why he doesn't age? Is he like Drew Barrymore in 50 First Dates, waking up each morning with a clean slate, memory-wise?

If that's the case, how does it suddenly occur to him to revisit his old hideout, in the ceiling rafters above Grand Central Station after 100 years?

And speaking of weird aging tricks, one character is a child in the earlier story who becomes an elderly woman in the second half. Its a big moment when she recognizes Peter.
Act 2: Farrell perplexed. Who can blame him?

 When the book was published around 1983, this character would be, plausibly, about 80. But the filmmakers make no adjustment in the time frame for the extra years; with the modern story set specifically in 2014, this character would have to be 110 years old.

Sure, it's great to see Eva Marie Saint back onscreen in the role (she's a mere spring chicken of 90, in real life), but it's just one more detail that seems out of whack.

The devil (literally) is in these details. Whether or not you've read the book, a movie needs coherent storytelling to draw the viewer into its unique world.

For all its palaver (and twinkly CGI effects) devoted to the idea of human interaction, Winter's Tale fails to connect.

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