Wonder WheelReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/09/17 03:16:50
Once a year, practically like clockwork, Woody Allen puts out a new film and once a year, practically like clockwork, there are a slew of think pieces from critics bemoaning his relentless production schedule and wishing that he curtail it and either make fewer films or just retire entirely. This might seem a tad ungenerous—his run of groundbreaking works from the Seventies through the mid-Nineties is legendary and his latter-day career, though admittedly much more hit and miss than previous, has still offered up gems like “Match Point,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and “Midnight in Paris”—but after watching his latest work, “Wonder Wheel,” I for the first began to consider that those naysayers may actually have a point. In the past, even his lesser efforts have usually contained some element to make them worth considering—even a disaster like “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” featured that hilarious supporting turn by Charlize Theron as a femme fatale for the ages—but other than Vittorio Storaro’s reliably stunning cinematography, there is nothing alone those lines here. Instead, the film presents viewers with a perfect storm of crumminess consisting of a substandard screenplay based upon an exceptionally dubious premise, lackluster direction and the grisly sight of one of the best actresses in the world delivering one of her very worst performances.Set in and around Coney Island in the 1950s, the film stars the great Kate Winslet as Ginny, a woman who was once an aspiring actress who was married to a jazz drummer but who is now struggling to cope with a largely loveless marriage to brutish ride operator Humpty (James Belushi), a dead-end job as a waitress in an oyster bar and a ten-year-old son, Richie (Jack Gore), from her first marriage who has become a budding pyromaniac. The story proper kicks off with the arrival of Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty’s daughter from his first marriage whom he hasn’t seen in five years since she ran off to marry a flashy guy who turned out to be a gangster. Needless to say, Humpty is not thrilled to see her at first, especially when he learns that she has informed on her husband to the FBI and is currently on the run from his goons (played, in just a hint of the delicate subtlety to come, by Tony Sirico and Stephen Schirrippa), but he soon caves in and lets her stay. Before long, he shifts all of his affections towards Carolina, even going so far as to take what little savings he has in order to finance her stab at night school, and increasingly regards Ginny as little more than the hired help.
The only thing keeping Ginny’s resentment towards her husband and stepdaughter from completely boiling over is the affair that she has been having with Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a local lifeguard with literary pretensions who is the narrator of this tale. Increasingly losing her grip on reality, she sees Mickey as both her lover and her savior, the one who will rescue her from her dead-end existence and give her the exciting life that she feels she deserves. There are two small complications to this. The first, and more important, is that while Mickey does care for Ginny and everything, he looks up what they have as simply being a bit of fun over the summer and nothing more. The second comes when Carolina, who has no idea of Ginny’s extramarital relationship, meets Mickey herself and starts swooning over him as well. This does not set well with Ginny, especially when Mickey admits to finding her fascinating as well, though he claims that he has not made any move on her at all. This all leads to a point where Ginny finds herself in the position of deciding whether or not to perform a simple task and the ramifications of that decision will affect the lives of everyone involved.
Those with a working knowledge of Woody Allen’s extensive filmography will quickly recognize that “Wonder Wheel” is essentially a grab bag of elements taken from earlier and almost certainly better. The faux-Tennessee Williams plot is pretty much a period riff on the storyline for his fairly overpraised “Blue Jasmine” with a shift in focus from the 1% to a world filled with guys who wear stained undershirts and yell a lot. The romantic triangle that sort of develops between Ginny, Mickey and Carolina echoes the ones found in any number of his films with “Manhattan” perhaps being the most obvious point of comparison. Hell, even the gangsters, although not necessarily portrayed in a comedic sense, look and sound as if they just wandered in from tryouts for “Bullets Over Broadway.” When an artist works for as long and is as prolific as Allen has been over the years, it is not surprising to discover common themes and plot devices cropping up in their films. The problem with “Wonder Wheel” is that they feel like a bunch of bits and pieces and never coalesce into something meaningful or interesting. The story just meanders along with no shape or purpose and after a while, there is the sense that Allen is as bored and uninterested with it as most viewers will be. In fact, since the story is seen through the eyes of aspiring writer Mickey, I was half-expecting a finale scene in which it turns out that everything we see was actually a play consisting of his dramatic embellishments of what really happened and that it was returned to him in class by the teacher with a note in red stating “See Me.” And while I am a firm believer in the notion of separating the artist from the work in most cases, it is impossible to ignore the fact that this is a film in which one of the key plot developments involves an increasingly crazed woman who flat-out accuses her husband of having an unnatural interest in his own daughter—partly because of how on-the-nose it is and partly because of how ineptly it is handled.
Not even Kate Winslet is able to salvage much of anything from the screenplay and character that she has been given. Watching it, you get the sense that she was never quite able to find her way into the role of Ginny and figure out who she was and what made her tick in order to develop it fully and instead elected to simply embrace the Blanche DuBois-style histrionics found in the screenplay. Winslet hasn’t given many bad performances in her career but she certainly chalks one up here—watching her, you feel less sorry for Ginny and the circumstances she has found herself in than you do for Winslet and her circumstances. As her younger lover, Justin Timberlake at least manages to avoid turning his performance into an extended Allen impersonation in the manner of so many of his predecessors but he doesn’t really bring much of anything to the proceedings either—usually a confident performer as an actor, he goes through his paces here as if unsure about everything that he is saying or doing throughout. As the third segment of the romantic triangle, Juno Temple, who has done some good and interesting work in the past, has basically been employed here simply to look pretty and nothing more. Frankly, the only one of the actors who comes off even halfway well here is James Belushi, who takes the big galoot part that he has been given (seriously, he is playing a guy named Humpty) and manages to invest it with a certain amount of humanity that stands out in marked contrast to the artificial nature of everything surrounding him.Although “Wonder Wheel” is a good-looking bad movie, thanks to Storaro’s contributions (then again, I cannot easily recall a film that he shot that didn’t look wonderful), it is nevertheless a bad movie. More than that, it is a truly disappointing effort from one of the great writer-directors in the history of American cinema that is as lazy and uninspired as anything he has ever done before. Once upon a time, Allen shot an entire movie, decided that he was dissatisfied with the results and reshot the entire thing a second time in the hopes that it might then achieve the high bar of quality that he set for himself. Here, he just seems to be going through the motions for the sake of going through them and the end result is a stunningly mediocre work that does neither him nor his audience any favors.
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