By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Winter's Tale isn't the Dolphin Tale sequel we're awaiting, but it does have a flying horse that the devil's right-hand demon keeps insisting is a dog.
Which makes the movie sound much less dismal than it is. More than anything Winter's Tale wants to be a Valentine's Day gift to lovers everywhere but never looks beyond graveyards and Narnia for inspiration. It's a movie to make tear ducts shrivel in shame for even thinking of opening up.
What must have enchanted readers of Mark Helprin's novel — time travel, destinies, miracles — now practically dares viewers not to smirk. Martin Scorsese was reportedly interested in adapting the book before deciding that was impractical. Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman took the challenge for his directing debut and should've listened to Marty.
The chrono-shuffle begins in the late 19th century, introducing a sensitive burglar, an orphaned immigrant named Peter Lake (briefly Matt Bomer then Colin Farrell). While robbing a mansion, Peter falls in love with Beverly Penn (Downton Abbey's Jessica Brown Findlay), who may die of consumption before losing her virginity. So far, so maudlin.
Then Peter's former partner in crime, Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe) shows up, ticked off that Peter quit the gang. Pearly isn't just a cold-blooded gangster, he's a minion of Lucifer, which might be scary except the devil's played by Will Smith and the words "Fresh Prince of Hades" nag throughout both of his scenes. Pearly vows to mess up Peter's destiny of saving a life, which will require stops in two more centuries for mawkish miracles and that flying horse to settle.
Even in magical elements, Winter's Tale is cloaked in wintry grays by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, making this a drab experience as fantasies go.
Crowe's unfortunate Irish brogue and croaking timbre is at least a sign of trying to entertain. Farrell needs to curb his sudden currying of sympathy weighing down this and Saving Mr. Banks. He's much more interesting dangerous than damaged. Findlay is a sweet-faced find who'll thrive with better material, as her on-screen father William Hurt has done better with worse.
Goldsman smartly rounds up actors who owed him for writing them Oscar-winning roles (Crowe and Jennifer Connelly in A Beautiful Mind) and hits (Smith in I Am Legend and I, Robot) when they're getting scarcer. Then he strands them in a sappy fantasy sans passion, sprinkled throughout with the kinds of moments that ruin movies.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.