Since it was first published in 1983, Mark Helprin’s “Winter’s Tale” has attracted a large cult following of dazzled literati unsure what hit them. At close to 800 pages, the book’s an overstuffed epic set in a magical-realist Manhattan, both in the years before World War I and in the modern day; it features flying horses, abandoned infants, enchanted lovers, and mysterious realms just out of sight up the Hudson River. It’s a big, chewy read, and to turn it into a movie you’d need a meat tenderizer.
Just why you’d want to turn “Winter’s Tale” into a movie is another question, one that goes unanswered by Akiva Goldsman, wielder of said meat tenderizer. A celebrated Hollywood screenwriter (“A Beautiful Mind,” “The Da Vinci Code”) making his film-directing debut, Goldsman takes Helprin’s book — a work overflowing with events, ideas, characters, passions — and pounds away at it until all that’s left is mush.
A very specific kind of mush, to be sure: date-night mush. “Winter’s Tale” has been transformed into one of those pudding-brained romances with fringes of fantasy, where true love is aided by heavenly messengers and remarkable coinky-dinks and where the heart triumphs over time, death, and every curveball a screenwriter can throw. Such movies — “The Lake House” (2006) is probably the silliest and thus the most representative of the genre — are traditionally enjoyed by a subtype of filmgoer who should know better yet happily prefers not to, whether she’s experiencing it next to a significant other quietly gnawing his arm off or watching it for the 24th time on TBS. And, honestly, there ain’t nothing wrong with that. Unless you’re Mark Helprin.
In Goldsman’s grand reduction of “Winter’s Tale,” Colin Farrell plays Peter Lake, who as a baby was abandoned at Ellis Island by his Russian parents and raised by a Native American (Graham Greene). This would explain his Irish accent. We meet him as an adult, a practiced burglar of New York’s Gilded Age mansions and in flight from his one-time gangster boss, a nasty piece of work named Pearly Soames. As played, fearsomely, by Russell Crowe, Pearly looks like Curly from the Three Stooges gone over to the Dark Side, and it’s giving nothing away to say the character’s Satanic tendencies are not metaphorical. Actually, Pearly’s a lesser demon working for the Big Guy himself, who lives in New York’s sewers and is played by a tragically miscast Major Hollywood Star. Between the two of them, “Winter’s Tale” develops a bad case of deviled ham.