NYFF Film Review: Woody Allen Is Going in Circles In WONDER WHEEL
There are ex-spouse ghosts and there are emotional ghouls in most stories by the quintessentially anxious American auteur Woody Allen. But in his latest offering, the Coney Island drama set in the 1950s Wonder Wheel, most of the specters revolved around the writer/director. A shadow of his former, brilliant self, Allen repeats and revisits themes that have haunted him and his work for decades, but with a more lackluster feeling, as if going through motions.
At some level, Allen is creating these movies for the love of game, and admirable thing that one cannot really argue with. Allen is an artist, a truly devoted, meticulous one, a creator with unparalleled insight into the human soul and boundless creativity. In his waning years, he is under no pressure to discover new dimensions at every turn. He is simply doing what he loves. But my role is to write a review about a movie and about how good the movie is. While film criticism 101 teaches that you must place a product alongside its broader context (and there the context is the unparalleled of Allen’s endless productivity), that is really for show.
The good and the bad of a film usually living within itself and, in Wonder Wheel, it is more average than good.
Wonder Wheel focuses on Ginny, a near-to-forty woman played by a bucolic Kate Winslet, during a fateful summer in that magical place in far East New York, sometime during the 1950s. Ginny is in a loveless marriage, one that at first appears one-sided but soon reveals itself to have little going even from man to woman. But Ginny still carries about her the most tiniest of spectacles of hopes as she ambles on in her thankless job as a waitress at a crab shack in Coney Island. Her expectations are rewarded when she meets the dashing young lifeguard Mickey, played by an obnoxious voiceover narrator in Justin Timberlake.
Yet, in the usual Allen manner, the story takes a sharp left turn (a predictable one, naturally) halfway through, as things get complicated between the embittered woman and the ebullient young man.
Ginny’s husband, aptly named Humpty because he cannot be put back together again after the moment he is initially broken (and played by Jim Belushi though interchangeably with John C. Reilly), has a daughter from a prior marriage. Her name is Carolina and she is sincere, not-classically pretty, and unassuming, a perfect role in some ways for the young actress Juno Temple (the young, troublemaker cousin in 2007’s Atonement). She is wanted by the mob (her estranged husband was a member and her own mouth was a bit too loose for comfort), and she eventually becomes Ginny’s romantic rival.
The rest of the movie, plot-wise, proceeds in predictable even if amusing and captivating ways. The same can be said of the remainder of the runtime, thematically, which runs through the typical Allen motifs of yore. Confused young men who want it all, bohemians at heart with supposedly the best of intentions but really inherently narcissistic. Troubled women whose feelings become saucier and raunchier as the reel spins and as the yarns thicken. Obnoxious children and teenagers that still manage to place into relief the adults’ own neuroses.
It is no accident if, while watching Wonder Wheel, you think of past Woody movies left and right. The mob has been there done that from Bullets Over Broadway to last year’s Café Society. The intra-women rivalry, one between close relations, was made most iconic by Hannah and her Sisters. It also appears in an altered state in Vicky Christina Barcelona, whose adaptation to the presence of an older woman simply evokes Blue Jasmine. The Purple Rose of Cairo makes its head shown in the spectacular cinematography, the best of his body of work, and something that tellingly I’m exploring in the fifth part of this review.
I suppose it all means that if you are an unerring fan of the Manhattan hypochondriac you will eat this film up like catnip. One cannot begrudge Pollock for making a Pollock. But you also cannot resent a more casual observer who grows tired with the same splotchy marks spewed on the same jaundiced canvas.
As Wonder Wheel progresses, two things occur in an at times startling parallel. What seemed to be a yawner of a performance for Winslet becomes one of her better ones, and a trip to the Oscar nominees’ luncheon is not entirely out of the question. Ginny becomes more unhinged and does the expectedly unthinkable. You have no sympathy for her (only men are worthy of that emotion in Allen’s work) but you cannot stop watching.
At the same time, however, the film descends into soapy drama, into screaming that is meant to drown out the sound of “it’s not all there” that is going through your brain. Humpty’s young kid—a hilarious pyromaniac that delivers some of the picture’s funniest lines—becomes more and more troubled, while the couple’s own relation deteriorates as the young Carolina gets in between them, and in betwixt Ginny and Mickey. It is actually quite amusing when I think about it as I write—perhaps I drank too much Kool-Aid—even though it felt so staid and repetitive as it is occurring.
So there you have it. This is Woody Allen. What can I say that does not already speak for itself? Actually, there is a lot more I could have said. I superficially only touched on the ever-changing tones, distracting but effective, of this movie. I only slightly mentioned the 1950s feel that has been perfected from last time out. So one cannot turn away from the fact that this a master filmmaker with watchful eye and a careful expression. But it does not mean that, at least plot-wise, let alone ideally, one has to forgive all of his sins, as he seems anxious for us to do.