It Really Is a Wonderful Life
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Winter's Tale leaves you a bit cold

In all fairness, The Man loved it. But then, he's the sap around this house.

Winter's Tale is a frustrating movie. All the right pieces are there. There are hints at some really neat worldbuilding - reminiscent of Sara M. Harvey's brilliant debut novel A Year and a Day, with a magical New York City of the past and present as a backdrop. It's visually lovely in every respect except for Colin Farrell's hair. 

And the cast! Did the director have a pile of markers he called in or something? Setting aside Colin Farrell as hero Peter Lake, Russell Crowe as a top henchdemon on Farrell's tail, and Jessica Brown Findlay as Beverly, the ethereal redhaired lady of Farrell's dreams.... We have William Hurt as Beverly's father, Graham Greene in all of one scene as the man who raised Peter, Jennifer Connelly as a single-mom/reporter (thereby winning my love), Eva Marie Saint as the elderly newspaper publisher and oh my stars, Will Smith in a barely-credited cameo as Lucifer himself.

Seriously, I might have chalked the whole thing up as a waste of money, except Smith as Lucifer was just too much fun. I honestly don't know how they snagged him: the whole movie's budget was $60 million, and Smith generally gets $20-25 million per movie by himself. Also: Lucifer wears earrings.

Maybe the movie would have made more money if they pointed out that Will Smith was playing the devil. Because otherwise, I can see why it rather tanked. It's frustrating, because all the pieces are there and the premise is interesting, but it feels incomplete. It's like the Cliffs Notes version of a spectacular fantasy epic of magical realism, cut down to an hour-fifty-five.

They say the best stories are the ones where you come away without any questions. In this case, I was listing them as we crossed the theater parking lot. I shall attempt to list some of them without too many spoilers.

  • Does Beverly really have consumption, otherwise known as pulmonary tuberculosis? If so, how come she never coughs even once? And since when is it "not contagious"?
  • Why does Character A owe Character B a favor, and why are there no consequences for fulfilling it?
  • Where do all these henchpeople come from - is Hell hiring?
  • Why does Character B have to change his very nature in order to accomplish [redacted goal], when an hour ago all he needed was permission?
  • Why is it only Peter who can accomplish [another redacted goal]? Seriously, nobody else was available? What's so special about Peter?
  • Why is Lucifer running amok, but God is nowhere to be seen, and yet goodness is still winning the war between them?
  • What is with Colin Farrell's hair?

The frustrating part is that it really should have been a good movie. And it's not nearly as bad as its 15 percent on Rotten Tomatoes would imply. It was diverting enough, and Farrell's acting at some fairly difficult emotional circumstances reminds me that he's a very good actor when he's not remaking 1980s action flicks.

But he has zero chemistry with Ms. Findlay, who is saddled with being the most boring of fantasy tropes: a perfect, wistful, delicate, dying flower of a girl who must be wooed and cosseted by everyone around her. She is so perfect that she floats off the screen. Maybe that's why her consumption never makes her cough.

You can't be an angel and a real woman at the same time unless you're in a Sara Harvey novel. Beverly's perfection is integral to the plot (because reasons) and yet it makes her so dull that we can't figure out why Peter is so infatuated. This is a problem for a movie that hinges entirely on love and its transformative power.

One night at home with the red pen and I could have fixed most of the plot holes, but the central problem for me was the failure of the couple at the center to stir my emotions. It was movie-love, the kind that Queen Elizabeth scoffed in Shakespeare in Love: "Playwrights teach us nothing about love. They make it pretty, they make it comical, or they make it lust. They cannot make it true." Winter's Tale is definitely pretty, but it didn't feel true.

Now, I have been informed that I am in the minority on this point. For a movie that got wretched reviews ("preposterous," "unconvincing," "clumsy and inert"... best line was "Enduring this soppy muddle of twinkling stars, fluttering wings, refracted points of light and destiny-led swooners is like being forced to listen at length to a crazy person at a street corner read out old Hallmark greeting cards," from Peter Howell of the Toronto Star) and took in only $8.1 million on its opening weekend, nearly everyone I've spoken to who actually saw it loved it, wept and ran out to buy the book. The Man got sniffly himself, and disputes my contention that their "love at first sight" was totally unrealistic. "It was a beautiful love story, and while the movie has problems with its mythology... I think it's possible to fall in love that deeply and that quickly."

While I have no intention of snagging Winter's Tale on DVD, I have placed myself on the library waiting list for the novel by Mark Helprin. I have a feeling that there is more to the mythology of this chilly tale than came through on the screen, something that this fine collection of actors saw in it that the film itself simply failed to describe.

But in the meantime, find yourself a copy of A Year and a Day. Now that's a magical New York that deserves to see film.


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