Look, here's the thing about Winter's Tale, the film adaptation — make that condensation — of Mark Helprin's 671-page novel: You either fall into its fantasy world fully or you run from the auditorium looking for the closest RoboCop showing.
Since critics can by nature be a rather cynical lot, it's no surprise that the picture is receiving reviews generally reserved for Adam Sandler abominations. Yet anyone who has enjoyed past films that subscribe to the "magical realism" concept — gems like The Purple Rose of Cairo, Amelie or Like Water for Chocolate — or even those who miss the grand romantic gestures often seen in movies from Hollywood's Golden Age should love at least half of the picture.
That would be the first half, which introduces Colin Farrell as Peter Lake, a petty thief making the rounds in 1916 New York. Because Peter is a gentle soul, his vicious mentor, crime boss Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), now wants him dead, but the execution is thwarted by the sudden arrival of a white horse with, shall we say, unusual traits.
After saving Peter, the animal eventually leads him to a mansion in which resides Beverly Penn (Downton Abbey's Jessica Brown Findlay), a young woman who's dying of consumption. The two instantly fall for each other and, despite his criminal standing, Peter is even accepted by Beverly's father (William Hurt).
Between their irrefutable chemistry and obvious beauty, Farrell and Findlay prove to be one of the most enchanting screen couples in many a moon, and the magical mood cast by writer-director Akiva Goldsman suits their romance well. Unfortunately, the movie introduces a new character about midway through, and it never recovers from the miscasting of this crucial role.
For it turns out that Pearly isn't just a ruthless mob boss but an actual demonic entity; he eventually takes a meeting with Lucifer, who's played by none other than ... Will Smith. What the devil?
Ralph Fiennes, James Earl Jones, Christopher Lee — there's an endless supply of actors who would have been perfect for this role, but ... Will Smith? (Goldsman wrote and/or produced the actor's hit flicks I Am Legend, Hancock and I, Robot, so at least we see the connection.)
It's a casting blunder that takes us right out of the film — it's hard not to giggle throughout his two scenes — although, to be fair, other elements in the second half make it hard to remain fully immersed.
I won't reveal any spoilers except to say that the action jumps to 2014, leaving much of the enchantment behind in the 20th century. From this point, the story becomes more disjointed, awkwardly shoehorning in a new character (played by Jennifer Connelly) and allowing the magical realism to melt into mawkishness.
That's a shame, because for one glorious hour, Winter's Tale convincingly pushes the notion that all we need is love.