Here's the critic's paradox about Winter's Tale: in order to make people excited about watching it, one has to explain in detail what it's doing, but knowing in detail what it's doing takes away some of the fun of watching it. It is, anyway, not a film for all audiences, by any stretch of the imagination: to begin with, it's an absolutely terrible motion picture. But it's also an absolutely passionate motion picture, leaking sincerity at every seam. And the sincerity both makes it more terrible than otherwise (since it commits hard to every idea that comes through, even the ones that were clearly never going to work), and also more worth watching in its own right (since that kind of total investment, without fear of being lambasted by cynical critics and audiences, is surpassingly rare in modern cinema, which mostly oscillates between legitimate irony and fake, forced sentimentality).

It was, as we know, a longstanding passion project for Akiva Goldsman, Oscar-winning writer of many outlandishly bad screenplays and also, weirdly, one of the best staff writers on the TV series Fringe, just to show that even a script as toxic as the one produced for Batman & Robin can't poison a career forever. Winter's Tale is Goldsman's directorial debut, and it required him to cash in a whole career's worth of favors in order to push through a project based on Mark Helprin's 1983 novel, which had been troubling filmmakers for years; allegedly, no less than a directorial whiz than Martin Scorsese chipped away at the story before concluding it was unfilmable. We might say the joke was on Marty, except that with the evidence of the film in hand, it's still not clear that he was wrong.

The film opens in New York in the closing years of the 19th Century, with two Irish immigrants, rebuffed at Ellis Island thanks to illness, floating their infant son towards the new world on a toy sailboat named City of Justice. Many years later, the boy is all grown up to be Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), whose rise into adulthood left him tangled up with the gangster Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe). Peter is trying to leave the criminal life behind, especially after he meets and falls in love with beautiful tuberculosis victim Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), but Pearly isn't having it. To a degree that surpasses mere thuggish mobster petulance, and here's way the film twists into outright madness, and also starts to shade into spoiler territory; though if you are like me, it is only in hearing the spoilers that you would start to care about the film in the first place. See, Pearly is no ordinary gangster. He's not even an ordinary gangster outside of his tendency to speak like a psychopathic reincarnation of the Lucky Charms leprechaun. He is, in fact, a demon: a minion of Satan (played by an awesome cameoing actor and don't dare look at any cast lists if you don't know and are even slightly interested in ever seeing the film - I knew it beforehand, and I wish I didn't), put on Earth to thwart the forces of light in doing miracles. See, every human being has one miracle, and once the achieve it, they can die and turn into a star. Pearly is certain that Peter's miracle is going to be saving Beverly from the consumption, and he's hellbent (as it were) on stopping the human from notching another victory for the Godly. Against Pearly, Peter's only ally is an angel in the form of a pure white horse.

So that's all, like, completely deranged and completely amazing, right? The only way to even potentially sell any of this was to play it so straight that it hurts a little, and Goldsman and crew did that, even when it broke the film. As it routinely does, given the inscrutable, half-explained weirdness of what I shall call the film's "theology" only in the absence of a word that actually describes the fairy tale spirituality underpinning the scenario. Or also the film's most visible example of someone locking into a choice that started out wrong and just went worse: Crowe and his extraordinarily baffling accent, an attempt to out-brogue Irish native Farrell that goes so far beyond caricature and cartooning that those words are insultingly small for it. In the absence of even one single other reason to praise Winter's Tale to the heavens as a particularly high-impact bad movie, Crowe's voice would be enough to do it all by itself.

But instead, Winter's Tale is an almost unlimited cornucopia of wonderful elements. We have, for one, the endlessly obvious fact that Farrell, 37 at the time of the film's release, has far too many years under his belt to convincingly play the fresh-faced rakehell that the script constantly implies Peter to be, and the giddily bad hairdo provided to the actor to try and compensate. We have, for another, the clattering impossibility of much of Goldsman's dialogue, eager to draw us through the film's themes in the most convoluted yet still over-expository ways, when it's not just being purely dysfunctional: "Daddy told me a story about a princess who died, and a kiss that made her not dead anymore" is spoken, with no measure of shame by anyone involved, by an aggressively darling moppet in one scene.

One can only get to that place when one is totally fearless: Winter's Tale stomps out with its daft story - which I have barely even scratched, since I am not anxious to ruin the last third - and its phenomenally poor casting and unhinged character building, and it puts everything out there. Everything. It's one of the most direct, emotionally instantaneous movies I have seen in ages, which is why I'm even a little tempted, despite its obvious, comprehensive failure as a piece of filmmaking, to praise it as a wonderfully real work of art. I have only ever felt this tension in regard to Xanadu before this, and while Winter's Tale can't stand up to that comparison (what on God's earth could?), it says a lot that I felt okay with making it anyway. This is a colossal mess across the board, from Caleb Deschanel's tastelessly aura-filled cinematography to Rupert Gregson-Williams and Hans Zimmer's twinkling, garish score, to every single beat in the screenplay; but it is a mess that doesn't apologise for itself or pretend to be anything other than a loopy romantic fantasy with all the stops out. I love it, and I hate it - but mostly I am thrilled to have seen it, and I pray that I can talk all of y'all into doing likewise.