In one of the main plotlines of Woody Allen's “Wonder Wheel,” a man falls in love with the stepdaughter of his lover, a woman he supposedly cares for. Is Allen’s choice to include such a story – which viewers, well aware of his personal history, are bound to see as related to his own life – a show of boldness or defiance, or else of arrogance, obtuseness and bad taste? This question might have been interesting as more than just gossip if only “Wonder Wheel” were a challenging work to ponder. Instead, it is yet another movie in which Allen seems to force himself on a fictional reality and its characters, leaving the result empty of human, conceptual, dramatic or emotional validity.
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Four years after “Blue Jasmine” – a movie I had some reservations about, but which nonetheless marked a high point in Allen’s unimpressive recent career – Allen has once again made a melodrama about a woman who seeks a way out of an impasse and, in the process, gets lost in the gap between reality and fantasy. Whereas “Blue Jasmine” was set in present-day America just after the financial crisis, in “Wonder Wheel” Allen returns to the early 1950s. He sets his story in Coney Island, New York’s seaside fairground, once a favorite hangout of the locals and the object of Allen’s own fond childhood memories.
“Wonder Wheel” was shot by Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (“Last Tango in Paris,” “Apocalypse Now,” “The Last Emperor” and many others), who also worked on Allen’s previous movie, “Café Society,” which was also set in the past – Hollywood and New York of the 1930s. He makes Coney Island look like a box of colorful toys, and together with the expressive, almost expressionist lighting of the main sites – including the protagonists’ home, with its view of the Ferris wheel for which the movie is named – this look is supposed to give the film the feel of a memory, but also to tinge it with irony, since the visual beauty is meant to clash with the characters’ tawdry existence.
Ginny (Kate Winslet) used to act in unimportant theater troupes. Having ruined her first marriage by cheating on her husband – an act she regrets, since in her memory he is the only man she ever loved – she is now married to Humpty (Jim Belushi), a large-bodied recovering alcoholic whose crude, aggressive behavior hides a good heart. Ginny, who works at a Coney Island clam house – Humpty operates the nearby wonder wheel – does not love her second husband and feels that she deserves a better life.
Dreams of salvation
The chance of one seems to open up when she meets Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a much younger man who spends summers working as a lifeguard on the Coney Island beach. Mickey is a theater student at NYU and dreams of becoming an important playwright, which allows Allen to drop the names of Eugene O’Neill, Chekhov and Shakespeare (as well as Oedipus and Freud). He believes that the only real love is love at first sight, and that an affair with an older woman is a necessary step in the development of any artist.
Mickey is kind of an idiot (and Justin Timberlake’s bland performance in the role – which is way out of his league as an actor – does not give him any depth, either). He is also the story’s narrator, occasionally facing the camera to spew out his opinions – an odd decision on Allen’s part, unless it was meant to be ironic. Mickey seems to be just passing through the story, and it doesn’t seem like the events we watch will have much of an impact on his life and creative ambitions, which Allen – as has been the case with many of his artistic characters – regards with contempt.
Mickey and Ginny have an affair. She thinks he can save her from her dead-end life; she has, it seems, no real mental or emotional ability to understand who he is, and if it hadn’t been Mickey, it might have been any other random guy who came from somewhere Ginny would like to go herself. Matters become more complicated with the arrival of Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty’s 26-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, with whom he cut off ties over the last five years because she married a gangster. Now he agrees to shelter her, because her husband is trying to kill her after she informed on him to the FBI. When Carolina meets Mickey, not knowing that he is sleeping with her stepmother, the result is love at first sight – on his part, anyway – and an abrupt end to Ginny’s dreams of salvation.
Another character in the plot – or rather, a character incongruously forced into the plot, since Allen doesn’t seem to know what to do with him – is Richie (Jack Gore), Ginny’s young son from her own first marriage. He likes to start fires in public places, including the waiting room of the therapist that Ginny takes him to see. Are his actions supposed to represent the consequences of the squalor, frustration and rage in which he and his family live? If so, it is a rudimentary dramatic device that Allen fails to develop into something more meaningful.
I’ve had various complaints about Allen’s movies in the past, but I don’t remember that he has ever written a screenplay quite so schematic, or such artificial, far-fetched dialogue – once Allen’s strong suit, at least in his early work. It is no accident that “Wonder Wheel” mentions Eugene O’Neill more than once: Allen, it seems, was trying to create a family melodrama in the tradition of O’Neill’s great family plays, to which he added elements from noir fiction, such as the work of James M. Cain (“The Postman Always Rings Twice,” “Mildred Pierce”) and its film adaptations. But the result, in the end, seems like a thin imitation of Allen’s influences. Especially during the scenes set in Ginny and Humpty’s house, which is designed and lit like a stage, I felt like I was watching a poor performance of one of the less successful social plays written in America in the first half of the 20th century.
Kate Winslet (who, as it happens, starred in Todd Haynes’ 2011 television version of “Mildred Pierce,” a role that her performance in “Wonder Wheel” sometimes alludes to) is an actress of considerable gifts, but her performance as Ginny is colorless and often monotonous. She is trapped inside a schematic character trapped inside a schematic script, within a movie that treats its heroine with minimal emotion; as a result, Ginny’s conduct and her clinging to her past romantic and professional failures seem forced.
In an interview with Haaretz, Woody Allen once said that he barely exists until he finds an idea for his next picture, and he indeed makes a movie a year (the next one has already been completed). This time, however, the idea he found was not a good one. It feels recycled, and it suggests a deeper creative desperation than any of his previous movies, which at least had some kernel of a concept that we could understand him following. All through “Wonder Wheel” it feels as though Allen doesn’t really care about what happens to his characters, and as a result, we don’t either.