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Film review: Implausible, corny 'Winter's Tale' melts in its own sweet syrup

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"Miracles can happen," says the trailer for "Winter's Tale," starring Colin Farrell and based on the 1983 novel of the same name.

Fair enough. But not long into the actual movie, you'll soon start to doubt that. Because you'll realize that this movie truly needs a miracle to save it from ending up a soppy, syrupy mess. And, sorry to say, that miracle never comes.

In (lukewarm) defence of screenwriter-director Akiva Goldsman ("A Beautiful Mind"), it's always tricky to adapt a popular novel. For one thing, people who've read it have preconceived notions of how things should be. And Mark Helprin's novel is a long one, meaning the author had plenty of room and time to weave his tale, as subtly as he wanted.

But Goldsman employs all the subtlety of a wrecking ball. From the beginning, we're asked to relinquish all sense of logic and reason, and accept that impossible, unexplainable things are happening. That would all be fine, in a film made with wit and charm and a breezy sense of magic. It's been done.

But not here.

The good news? Only this: Colin Farrell is hugely appealing, and his natural charm is almost enough to make you forget the silliness of the rest of it. Almost.

The film begins, briefly, in the present day, to which it will later return. A man finds a box, which he hopes will give him some clues to who he is. Which he doesn't know. But we don't really know that yet.

Flashback to 1895. An immigrant couple with a baby is trying to enter the country, but they're turned away due to illness. On the boat back home, they set their baby son afloat onto a tiny wooden boat, like Moses, so he can float back to the promised land.

Now we get to 1916 (stay with us.) That boy's grown up to be Peter Lake, who makes his way in New York as a petty thief. We learn he's at odds with a former boss, Pearly Soames (played by Russell Crowe in an almost comically unpleasant, sinister performance.) Soames wants nothing more than to kill Peter — "and I want him to stay dead," he says. At a key moment, that seems about to happen, but a snow-white horse shows up to save Peter and whisk him away.

And then he meets Beverly (Jessica Brown Findlay from "Downton Abbey.") The lovely young woman is the daughter of a newspaper magnate and is, alas, suffering from consumption. Peter breaks into her beautiful home to rob it, but soon she's offered him a cup of tea. And they are falling in love.

Can Peter save the dying Beverly through the force of his love? Has he been placed on earth in service of a higher plan? Will Soames be able to follow through on his goal of extinguishing Peter's life, or lives?

Readers of the book will be able to answer those questions. But here's one they won't be able to answer: What the heck is Will Smith doing in this movie?

Smith doesn't have too much screen time, but the scenes he does have are rather ludicrous. Again, it might all make more sense to fans of the book. But you shouldn't have to have read the book to be able to see and enjoy the movie.

"Winter's Tale" opens on Valentine's Day, at a time when you might have a softer spot for romantic fantasy than you ordinarily would. And there are some touching moments, courtesy of Farrell and Findlay. Farrell in particular knows how to deliver sentimental dialogue and make it sound less so.

But to overcome the corniness of this movie? That would take magical powers that he doesn't possess.

"Winter's Tale," a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "violence and some sensuality." Running time: 118 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.


MPAA definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

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