Even fantasies have rules. Tell me Hobbits have furry toes, live in burrows, eat multiple meals a day and are smart, timid creatures, and I’ll set out on a three-movie journey with you. Change the rules in the middle to tell me they can also breathe fire and leap mountains, and I quit.
That’s the problem with “Winter’s Tale,” which tries to cram too many conflicting stories into one space and ends up defying us to believe any. Call it magic unrealism, a well-intentioned but clunky genre. As someone once noted, good intentions (the unfulfilled kind) are paving stones on the road to Hell.
Actually, Hell seems to be located in New York City in this film. Lucifer (Will Smith) sits in an abandoned building lit by a 100-watt bulb and runs an army of demons. His commander-in-chief, Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), tries to corrupt the souls of New Yorkers but mostly just enjoys their pain. He’s disappointed in his adopted son, 21-year-old Pete (Colin Farrell), who believes you can steal gems and gold without breaking their owners’ fingers or cutting their throats.
Pete breaks into a house one day in 1916 to encounter a beautiful, tubercular redhead playing Brahms on the piano. He immediately falls in love with Beverly (Jessica Brown Findlay) and runs off with her; Pearly decides they both must die, and Pete must never be allowed to learn about the one miracle all of us carry inside us. That miracle, Pearly thinks, is to save Beverly from her disease. But whatever it is, Pete will be immortal until he figures out his destiny.
This metaphysical construct may have worked over the 800 pages of Mark Helprin’s novel. Chopped and stuffed into two hours by writer-director Akiva Goldsman, it doesn’t hang together. (Actually, it lost me at the claim that 37-year-old Colin Farrell is 21.)
Why is Lucifer in New York in 1916? (Shouldn’t he be in Europe, harvesting the damned during World War I?) How is his Big Apple cadre “turning souls to the dark side” merely by killing and torturing? If a native American shaman (Graham Greene) raised Pete on the New York docks, why didn’t he explain this mumbo-jumbo long ago? While we’re at it, why do the people in Beverly’s family all have different accents?
The most off-putting thing is that characters themselves have no sense of wonder about events. When a newspaper reporter (Jennifer Connelly) finds out in 2014 that Pete is now 119 years old – and looking just as he did in 1916 – she barely raises an eyebrow. (Maybe that’s because the paper’s publisher, played by Eva Marie Saint, is supposed to be 105.) A Pegasus-like stallion makes frequent appearances, and nobody seems surprised to see a flying white horse. A man gets turned to snow and ... so what?
The great cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, who earned his first of five Oscar nominations for “The Right Stuff” 30 years ago, really does paint with light here (as directors of photography like to say). Farrell and Findlay make a satisfying earthy-ethereal mix. Crowe looks slightly more at ease than he did in “Les Miserables,” though Pearly is more a bundle of tics and scars than a person.
Listo, an Andalusian stallion, literally runs away with the story and our hearts, yet even his character makes no sense: He’s actually a guardian dog spirit in the body of a flying horse. Sometimes a movie simply tries too hard.