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Before we go any further, I have to admit something. For years, I’ve been a diehard Woody Allen fan.
Other writers more eloquent than myself have considered what it is to love artists accused of misconduct, including what it is to have loved Woody Allen films specifically in the wake of Me Too. All of this shifting history weighed heavily on me as I watched Wonder Wheel, which began streaming on Amazon Prime this month, just as it will weigh on me if I should choose to watch any of his films again.
The Me Too era has rightfully prevented many men accused of sexual misconduct from ever working again. But while some have had their careers ended, others are plotting comebacks. Other still, like Jeffrey Tambor or former President Bill Clinton (or, you know, our current president) have yet to reckon with the consequences of their actions. Even now, despite many former collaborators distancing themselves from him, Allen continues to deflect from accusations leveled by his daughter, Dylan Farrow, that he molested her as a child.
Complicating matters is Allen’s partnership with Amazon Studios, the same studio Tambor and executive Roy Price were ousted from following claims of sexual harassment. At this point, it seems entirely possible that Amazon will scrap the upcoming movie he made with the company altogether—or at the very least that they’ll go with the Netflix model and bury it on streaming.
Wonder Wheel is set in 1950s Coney Island, where a waitress named Ginny (Kate Winslet) has her world turned upside down after the daughter of her husband, Humpty (Jim Belushi), shows up at their door one day. His child from a previous marriage, Humpty’s daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), is on the run from her gangster husband and asks to hide out with her father and Ginny in Coney Island as she gets her life together. Meanwhile, Ginny is juggling an affair with a lifeguard and aspiring playwright named Mickey (Justin Timberlake), and trying to look after her son from a previous marriage, Richie (Jack Gore), a juvenile pyromaniac who has little interest in anything other than going to the movies and starting fires.
As Allen has gotten older, his influences have returned to being as obvious as they were at the beginning of his career. Where he was once aping filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini, now he seems more interested in copying dramatists like Tennessee Williams. It’s no secret that Blue Jasmine was essentially an extended riff on Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, yet Wonder Wheel feels more governed by stage sensibilities than anything he’s done before. Scenes drag on for minutes at a time, and characters deliver monologues which wouldn’t be out of place in a play but which often read clunkily on-screen. There are funny scenes, but the film is not a comedy. If anything, it’s a tragedy which doesn’t reveal itself as one until the finale. (Spoiler: By the end of Wonder Wheel, Winslet practically goes full Blanche DuBois.)
The strange part is that the other person Allen always seems to be stealing from as he gets older is himself. Wonder Wheel contains tired meditations on the intersection of art and life. The characters are also comprised of his typical lineup of archetypes. The unstable seductress, the brutish lout, the sexy ingénue, the romantic cad—they’re all here. Even the Coney Island setting, with the central characters living right behind the Ferris wheel, feels ripped right out of Annie Hall.
This leads back to the predominant criticism of Allen’s later work, which is that it’s all the same and that he has nothing new to say. I can’t say I disagree with this sentiment as it relates to Wonder Wheel or any of the rest of his recent output for that matter. Nevertheless, I was surprised how much I liked this film, given the lackluster response from most critics.
Not all of the performances are great, but the ones that are go a long way toward redeeming the movie. Winslet is unsurprisingly fantastic in the lead role, in fact, I would go so far as to say I like her and the film more than the similar Blue Jasmine, which Cate Blanchett won an Oscar for. Belushi is also great in this. His Humpty is a long way from likable, but Belushi is such a natural fit for the character, and you’re never unhappy to see him. Also, Sopranos fans should look out for cameos by Tony Sirico and Steve Schirripa, better known as Paulie “Walnuts” and Bobby “Bacala,” who pop up as a pair of gangsters (shocking, I know) sent by Carolina’s husband.
The guy I’m split on is Justin Timberlake, a performer who has been great in certain movies and abysmal in others. As the dreamy but deceptive Mickey, he’s believable as a guy with romantic sensibilities but who will likely never have the drive to turn his ambitions into real art. If this character had stayed in Greenwich Village and sold out in the ‘60s, he could’ve easily become the pop singer Timberlake so successfully portrayed in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. Unfortunately, Allen also asks Timberlake to be the narrator, a role this movie simply doesn’t need. Allen has written plenty of narrators into his films, and he’s written plenty of charming scoundrels, but he hasn’t written a character who’s both at once before, and Timberlake folds under the weight of these dual gigs.
The use of a narrator is another element Allen includes to give the piece a sense of dramatic heft, but the irony is that most of Wonder Wheel’s best moments are the ones where he remembers it’s a movie. Despite the pretentious dialogue and the long monologues, the thing that actually surprised me about the film is how Allen will occasionally interrupt his trademark static master shots with the odd pan or zoom. Then there’s the cinematography from Vittorio Storaro, who also shot the two films Allen did before and after Wonder Wheel. Considering the director made his name with movies like Annie Hall and Manhattan, shot by Gordon Willis, known to film nerds as “the prince of darkness,” Allen’s latest is a feast of color, often shifting light and shadow in the span of a single scene to reflect the characters’ tumultuous inner lives.
The shadow of Allen himself is what nearly ruins the film. Although we are mercifully spared an Allen stand-in on-screen, many uncomfortable traits and many old-fashioned ideas about men and women do persist.
I don’t believe in passing judgment on anyone for watching. In this age of increased awareness, it’s up to the individual to navigate their own comfort zone in regards to the entertainment they consume, and who’s showing it to them. In that sense, maybe streaming Wonder Wheel is the best way to view it, as you don’t have to go out of your way to support Allen or his continued presence at the cineplex.
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Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.