Calling the results of Woody Allen’s annualized blueprint to filmmaking ‘wildly hit-or-miss’ is a colossal understatement. Each year the 82 year-old Allen pops out another quirky postmodern exercise in human reflection. When they stick their landing they can be nothing short of delightful. But when they don’t they can be tedious, uninspired and generally unpleasant to watch.
Unfortunately Allen’s latest film “Wonder Wheel” falls in the latter category. It’s set in 1950s Coney Island and puts us in with a mostly flawed and disagreeable lot of characters. The story’s centerpiece is Ginny (Kate Winslet), a clam shack waitress married to carousel operator Humpty (Jim Belushi) and with a pyromaniac son from a previous marriage. Their household is misery personified. The fragilely sober Humpty is occasionally sensitive but mostly loud and abusive. Ginny (one time an aspiring actress) hates her job, wants out of her marriage, and doesn’t mind sharing her unhappiness.
To make things even more unsavory, Ginny begins having an affair with a younger man named Mickey (Justin Timberlake). He’s a Coney Island lifeguard and wannabe dramatist who also happens to be the movie’s narrator. It’s hard to figure out how the the film wants us to feel about Mickey. You could say Allen treats him as his protagonist and in some ways he’s the one character who comes out of this mess unscathed. Could it reasonably be taken as an indictment on Allen’s perspective? Me, I thought Mickey was a slime.
The one small twinkle of light is in Juno Temple’s character Carolina. She is Humpty’s estranged daughter from his first marriage who shows up after being gone for five years. Turns out her family disowned her after she ran off with a known gangster. Now she is ‘marked’ by the mob after talking to the feds and she seeks help from her father. It’s an absurd angle but Carolina is a nice break from the constant toxicity we get elsewhere. She’s actually sensible, pleasant and ambitious.
You can’t help but notice Allen once again drawing from Tennessee Williams, but at times I saw it as cheaply ripping from Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”. It’s in Allen’s dialogue and in how he squeezes some of his characters. Take Belushi who has some impressive moments, but his dial is almost always cranked up to 10. Same for Winslet who gives it her all, but is rarely given any softer moments. As her character steadily unravels she’s hardly given room to breathe. It’s a suffocating task for a really good actress.
I have no problems with movies that focus on deeply flawed people or that put us in the company of an unlikable cast of characters. In fact I enjoy those explorations. “Wonder Wheel” has its moments where you begin to see what makes its characters tick. The problem is it doesn’t have an ounce of temperance. And despite its teases of intrigue and some good images from new Allen collaborator Vittorio Storaro, the movie never keeps its footing and becomes little more than an aimless endurance test. But there’s always next year, right? Or is there?
VERDICT – 2 STARS
I haven’t had the chance to catch up on Woody’s past 2 films as they haven’t been on TV as I’ve heard mixed things about it. I hope to get around to it but if it’s the sign that he’s starting to lose his way. I think it’s time to hang it up.
This one is a tough watch. There are strokes of the good Allen but as a whole it would fall among his weaker efforts. I actually didn’t mind Cafe Society. Was t his best but better than this one.
I feel like the premise of Wonder Wheel sounds like it would have been handled better by another director. I have a lot of Woody Allen bias because I’ve only managed to like one of his films, but I read the synopsis and think “maybe” then I remember it’s an Allen film and go “nah.” lol
You may be right. Allen is such an oddity. When he hits his mark his films can be really good. But he misses a lot.
I’m curious though, what was the movie of his you liked?
Hit or miss is precisely right. Thanks for the head’s up. Did you like ‘Cafe Society’? That one was pretty good. Not as good as Blue Jasmine or the exceptional Midnight in Paris.
I did like Cafe Society. I think I have it either 3 or 3.5 stars. Definitely not Midnight in Paris but fun (and definitely better than Wonder Wheel). Did you ever see Magic in the Moonlight?
No. I am trying to recall whether your review favored it or not….
It didn’t get much love but I really liked it. Colin Firth is a hoot.
Looking forward to Captain Marvel?
Fully agree with your thoughts on this one. And I loved the way you ended your review, because, yeah, for the first time in a long time, will there be next year?
Yep. I actually read where it looked Amazon Studios was going to drop his New York film set to release next year. That’s a pretty dramatic move.