Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) is a thief, who operates in New York. One winter's night, he breaks into a manor on the Upper West Side that is heavily-protected and seemingly empty. What he finds inside is Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), the daughter of the family who is dying. Peter and Beverly form a connection from this encounter and start to fall in love.

A lame adult fairy tale.

From the very beginning of Winter’s Tale, the experienced writer/producer Akiva Goldsman does his utmost to soften up the audience. The film begins with a voiceover that says: 'What if"¦ Once Upon a time"¦ there were no stars in the skies at all?" Okay, it’s fairy tale time and the rules of ordinary reality are unlikely to apply.

Goldsman clearly doesn’t know who he is making this movie for.

Quickly, the film sets up three separate time zones, by rapidly cutting between 1895, 1916 and 2014. The events of each time zone appear to take place at New York’s (glorious) Grand Central Station. Make that two out of three. In the first era, two Russian, would-be émigrés are denied access to New York. This would presumably occur at Ellis Island (the American off-shore processing centre of its day), but due to a misconceived directorial transition, Goldsman creates the mistaken impression that the immigration evaluation is occurring at Grand Central. It’s the first basic narrative error in a film riddled with them. The rules of reality might be negotiable, but the fundamentals of storytelling are not.

Anyway, as the Russian ship carrying the failed emigrants sets sail, they place their baby in a model ship and float him back along the Hudson River to Manhattan. Against all odds, the baby grows up to be Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) a safecracker mentored by bowler-hatted gangster, Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe), who Peter has recently, now that we’re in 1916, betrayed. Just as Pearly and his hoons are about to give Peter a 'talking-to", a white horse appears. Through magical powers and aurora borealis wings that would have done the Tri-Star trademark proud, the white horse spirits our hero off to safety.

But not honesty. Peter commits a few robberies and in one of the targeted Central Park West mansions meets and is smitten by beautiful young consumptive, Beverley (Jessica Brown Findlay). Peter is embraced by Beverley’s newspaper publisher father (William Hurt) and her twee, younger sister (McKayla Twiggs), and they all go to the countryside. They have a delightful time as the crim falls in love with the dying society girl in an icicle-encrusted winter wonderland that helps prevent Beverley from being overheated by her consumption. It’s all very beautiful"¦ until it’s not.

While that’s happening, the audience is informed Pearly is really a demon employed by Lucifer (Will Smith in a complete non sequitur wears a partially obscured Jimi Hendrix t-shirt), and the powers of the sulphurous pair do not extend beyond New York City limits, due to some ancient agreement.

And the third, contemporary setting? Ah well, that would be telling"¦ but the film may have had more dramatic effect if it dared to hold back evidence of the modern day adventure until after the halfway mark, instead of dumping all its surprises in the audience’s lap at the outset as if we were greedy children.

Maybe the film is for children? Err"¦ no. The story is apparently based on a book, which allegedly seduces adult readers into child-like awe of its fairy tale milieu with sophisticated language. Goldsman has not found the cinematic equivalent. In fact, in film terms he can barely construct a comprehensible sentence. Winter’s Tale plays at being for children, but with a condescending sloppiness that believes that kids won’t know tripe when they see it. At the same time, it also has enough suggested nudity and lovemaking to suggest that Winter’s Tale is not for the very young.

Goldsman clearly doesn’t know who he is making this movie for.

But that’s not all Goldsman doesn’t know. During ordinary dialogue exchanges, his camera awkwardly alternates between character’s points of view for no apparent reason. His directing also squelches every humorous moment in a script jammed with feeble verbal witticisms. Visual humour fares just as poorly. A sequence where Peter and Beverley’s Dad struggle to keep a furnace from blowing up is clearly meant to be a hysterical. Instead it – and including its wannabe comical CGI punch line – is just embarrassing. The only good thing about Goldsman’s direction is that he clearly shot plenty of coverage. Some shots seem to exist only to prove this point.

This is Goldsman’s feature-length debut, so he’s not really a director. That fact is repeatedly reinforced as one watches. Goldsman’s known as a writer, but since most of his films (The Da Vinci Code, Cinderella Man and Lost in Space) have appeared on my 'Why bother?" list, I can’t really vouch for his previous writing. In the absence of such experience and in the presence of this incompetent film, I can only conclude that the man’s genius lays in being a producer. How else to account for his success?

In a film as lame as this is, it’s polite to suggest the actors are just victims of bad takes. Anyone who has seen Russell Crowe in The Insider or the rarely seen Tenderness knows he can act. So it has to be the director who has reduced him to a series of lazy poses. Likewise, let’s not blame William Hurt for apparently replicating exactly what he did on stage at the Sydney Theatre Company a couple of years ago: he acts in his own production and everyone else can go to hell.

But even poor takes wouldn’t explain Colin Farrell. Despite playing the son of Russian Jews, raised as an orphan in Brooklyn, Farrell inexplicably still speaks with his trademark Irish accent. And is it Goldsman’s ineptitude or Farrell’s untamed ways that caused the Irish actor’s haircut to change from scene to scene and back again across the century-long story? You’ll need more than 'What if?" or 'Once upon a time" to make sense of that.