My World of Flops #117/My Year of Flops II #14 Winter's Tale (2014)
Oscar-winning Batman & Robin screenwriter Akiva Goldsman’s 2014 directorial debut, Winter’s Tale represents an unusually pure flop. As long as the epic boondoggle has been on my radar, it’s been as a cinematic disaster for the ages, the staggeringly misguided tale of a boy, a girl, a magical horse and the Fresh Prince of Darkness that angrily demands to be righteously mocked on bad movie podcasts and columns like this.
Bear in mind, Goldsman did not win his Academy Award for writing Batman & Robin. That movie was shamefully overlooked when Oscars were being doled out. Goldsman’s Oscar is for writing A Beautiful Mind but to me Batman & Robin is the more important credit. That screenplay and its cold-themed puns define Goldsman as a writer and a storyteller for me.
True, Goldsman has attained astonishing success as a writer and producer. His blockbusters have grossed billions but to me at least he’ll always be the man behind Mr. Freeze’s dialogue in Batman & Robin.
Goldsman might like to think that Batman & Robin is not representative of his sensibility and talents. Winter’s Tale suggests otherwise. It is a film of gloriously misplaced conviction and sincerity that would be borderline heroic if it weren’t so staggeringly misplaced. If nothing else, Winter’s Tale has the courage of its convictions, its stupid, stupid conviction.
Like weirdly simpatico previous Case Files Collateral Beauty and The Book of Henry, Winter’s Tale aspires nakedly to greatness. The film’s twinkly opening narration clumsily convey that what we are about to witness is about the biggest issues known to mankind, that it will be about miracles and light and the interconnectedness of all things and destiny and sacrifice and love so powerful and overwhelming time and death are powerless before it.
Winter’s Tale doesn’t just want to entertain. It wants to dazzle, to overwhelm. It doesn’t just want you to like it: it wants to be your favorite film. That makes its failure to rise even to the level of mediocrity at once sad and a little poignant.
The terrible decisions begin with casting Colin Farrell, who was thirty-seven years old when the film was made, and looked it, as Peter Lake, an orphan thief in his early twenties running wild over a mythical 1916 New York inhabited by literal angels and demons, including the demonic Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), the only father figure Peter has ever known.
Peter is about to get his ass beaten when he receives unlikely assistance from a MAGICAL FLYING HORSE WITH WINGS OF PURE LIGHT. That’s right: Winter’s Tale is a magical horsey movie. A goddamn MAGICAL HORSE movie. If a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper cover from the 1980s became a film, that glittery motion picture would be Winter’s Tale.
Peter is understandably excited to acquire a magical flying horse as his guardian angel/equine Deus ex machina. He’s even more excited to run into a Magic Pixie Dying Girl in the form of Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), a twenty-year-old daughter of privilege whose imminent death from Consumption somehow just makes her sexier and cooler and more ethereal.
She’s not like you or I, this Beverly Penn. She is a creature of pure light, an exuberant spirit too saintly and special for our sick, corrupted world. In other words, she is a particularly shameless variation on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She’s not alone. Winter’ Tale has got got so much pixie dust flying in all directions that its Manic Pixie Dream Girl falls in love with a Manic Pixie Dream boy who fills many, if not all of the prerequisites of the archetype as well.
To make things even more insufferably magical, our Manic Pixie Dream Girl has a Manic Pixie Dream Boy who in turn has a Manic Pixie Dream Horse. True, the Manic Pixie Dream horse, creatively named Horse, does not keep our protagonist up all night talking about how much they love The Smiths or invie him to run naked through a cemetery but Horse is Magical, he flies through the air like a goddamn pixie and whenever our lackluster hero is in a bind the good old Manic Pixie Dream Horse is there to save him from the ravages of a cold world, while asking nothing for himself.
Peter and Beverly meet cute when Peter encounters the gorgeous, terminally ill young woman in her home while robbing the majestic home she shares with her press magnate father. Usually when an armed burglar gets caught in the process of a crime it results in the burglar panicking and shooting the person whose home he’s robbing, the thief running away in terror or the criminal getting killed by the home-owner in self-defense.
That doesn’t happen here. In the weird world of Winter’s Tale getting caught robbing a huge house leads first to a tea party and then to a love so vast and all-powerful that it is the envy of God Herself.
An amused Beverly invites the nicest criminal known to man to stop the crime he’s committing and join her for some tea and company. Peter is clearly supposed to be a young man in his early twenties. That would make him only slightly older, if infinitely more experienced than the twenty-year old object of his outsized desire. Instead, Peter is played by a man clearly pushing forty who has spent much of his adult life blackout drunk. Instead of playing as a star-crossed romance between lovers roughly the same age, Winter’s Tale feels like a creepy fling between a middle-aged man pretending to be a spry street kid and a beatific young woman who has never been kissed, let alone paid a visit to the Bone Zone for the sake of fucking.
That changes one magical, mystical, mysterious night when Peter tenderly relieves his soulmate of her cursed virginity and does such a good job at sex that at the end she fucking dies. Or rather she dies from fucking, overdosing on way too much of that sweet, sweet dick. Peter’s pipe game is so strong that he not only put her ass to sleep with his ninja-like sex skills; he straight up put her to sleep permanently with that good dick. Have you ever been fucked so good that afterwards you ascend to heaven to take your place alongside your lord and savior? No? If you had, you clearly wouldn’t be reading this? That appears to be the case with Beverly.
Nothing suits a Manic Pixie Dream Girl quite like the kind of dramatic, young death Beverly experiences here after fulfilling her role in life by turning Peter’s concerned frown upside down and teaching him that this sick, sad, grey old world is actually full of mystery, light, miracles and wonder.
A dead Manic Pixie Dream Girl can never disappoint the sad-eyed boy whose life she has invested with so much meaning, radiance and joy. She can’t develop a troubling fondness for Alex Jones or FOX News. She can’t get addicted to Xanax or decide to only wear sweatpants and novelty tee-shirts. By dying young, she remains frozen forever in her period of peak desirability.
Earlier Peter expressed an interest in loving Beverly so fully that it would prevent her from ever dying. In the fairy-tale romance world of Winter’s Tale, that’s a legitimate, seemingly achievable goal but in true Manic Pixie Dream Girl form, Beverly uses the one “miracle” she has been granted to save the creepy middle-aged criminal who recently took her virginity from dying a natural death.
Pearly works for Lucifer, who he calls “Lu” because apparently the Anti-Christ is weirdly fine with casual nicknames. When Lucifer asks his devoted minion how this plucky thief with a heart of gold has managed to elude his grasp, Pearly replies with an even more shockingly casual “Shit happens.”
Are we to really believe that the popular tee-shirt and bumper sticker catchphrase “Shit happens” was coined in 1916 by a demon in the employ of Satan himself? I should probably point out here that the Devil is probably the best part of Winter’s Tale, with the possible exception of the always-great Kevin Corrigan as one of Pearly’s unfortunate henchmen.
That’s partially attributable to the film’s unique conception of Satan as a dry, bureaucratic type who is less a sinister figure of ultimate power than a middle manager making sure all of the rules are followed and partially attributable to the preeminent pop icon playing the devil: Will Smith. That’s right: the artist formerly known as the Fresh Prince is cast against type here as the Fresh Prince of Darkness.
Beverly’s love for our protagonist is so strong that it keeps him from aging or dying. He ends up in contemporary New York, where he ambles into the lives Virginia (Jennifer Connelly, reuniting pointlessly with Beautiful Mind album Crowe and Goldsman) and a dying red-haired girl named Abby.
Abby needs a miracle. Luckily legendary Native American actor Graham Greene literally shows up just long enough to tell us of a Native American belief in the idea that each person has one “miracle” in their soul. He’s got a miracle, she needs a miracle. It all just works out, particularly with that magical horsey in the mix just waiting to solve our heroes’ problems and get them out of any jam.
Winter’s Tale is adapted from a novel by Conservative commentator Mark Helprin that, according to the Internet at least, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese both considered adapting for film before deciding that Helprin’s romantic fantasy was ultimately unfilmable.
I have no doubt that the fantasy elements of Winter’s Tale are better suited to novels than big-budget, special effects-intensive filmmaking. I can see how a guardian angel horse with wings of pure light and the gift of flight might register as an achingly romantic, spiritual conceit on the page. Onscreen, however, every single time that fucking Horse shows up it prompts agitated cries of “Are you fucking kidding me!?!”
Winter’s Tale really does need to be seen to be disbelieved. It lives up and down to its reputation as one of the most spectacularly bad, misconceived movies of the decade. Ultimately, it seems, the problem with Winter’s Tale wasn’t that it couldn’t be filmed but rather that it shouldn’t be filmed.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco
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