Woody Allen’s Wheel of Misfortunes: An Opera of Human Frailty
Year after year, films by the prolific Woody Allen seem to build on each other like snippets of a longer conversation. Like any long discourse, his filmography contains both salient gems and indulgences, some more easily tuned out than others. In that context, sadly, Allen’s latest opus in a series of nostalgia-driven ‘relationship’ movies – is not one of his best. Even so, Wonder Wheel has charms that separate it from the chaff: in particular its ability to poke fun at itself.
Right from the start, the film’s narrator warns the audience in a cheeky aside: “As a budding dramatist, I relish melodrama and larger-than- life characters.” This self-deprecating awareness, plus a scattering of dynamic performances, radiant cinematography and a strong third act, make it worth checking out. Even at its worst, it keeps the ‘Woody Allen Conversation’ going.
Once again, Allen has given us an opera of human frailty. This time around, he explores the seedier side of life: dilapidated people and places where jealousy, deceit and deep-set insecurities take center stage.
Set in 1950’s Coney Island, the film centers on down-and- out waitress Ginny (Kate Winslet) and her affairs – both familial and romantic. Ginny is unhappily remarried to Humpty (James Belushi), a blubbering short-fuse alcoholic who spends his days on the pier with his gnarly fishing buddies. Saddled with Ginny’s son from her previous marriage, child-pyromaniac Richie (Jack Gore), the couple struggles to make ends meet. Their problems are further compounded when Humpty’s long-disowned daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) reappears, on the lam from the mob and her former husband. A lot of drama: all of it framed and remembered – sort of – by Coney Island Lifeguard Mickey Rubin (Justin Timberlake), who breaks the fourth wall to announce that he, too, has a role to play.
This is Allen at his best. Timberlake charms as a wanna-be playwright. Temple, a likable ingénue, plays the prodigal daughter as a strong foil for Ginny’s jealousy. Belushi, as the floundering husband, flips effectively between shades of anguish, rage and sensitivity. As for Winslet, she shimmers as Ginny, a haunting re-imagination of Blanche Dubois, Tennessee Williams’ character in A Streetcar Named Desire.
An anxiety-stricken, fading beauty, Ginny’s nostalgia for younger days eats at her like poison. Understandably so: her last husband killed himself; her current husband is a desperate drunk. Her son runs rampant, stealing money, lighting fires, all for attention. While we watch, she unravels, suffering from self-imposed migraines, grounding craziness in deeply believable yearning.
Little wonder that she fixates on a strapping young lifeguard as her last best hope. Played by Timberlake as a try-hard lover boy, he’s the younger man sleeping with the older woman – an appropriately Allen-esque twist. On top of that, he serves as the film’s mischievous, not-so- reliable narrator: part Greek Chorus, part Huck Finn. His shifting interpretations of ‘facts’ are what makes this drama tick.
Voiceover-agnostics, fear not: unlike so many Allen films, all of Wonder Wheel’s narration is recited onscreen like a soliloquy. Even better, it’s a layer of self-aware genius. Timberlake is basically Allen’s apologist. More than once he pegs himself as victim of “the writer’s life,” a world where romantic self-indulgence and excessive narcissism justify all kinds of cruelties. His performance is nearly over-the-top – but instead of keeping us at a distance, it reels us in. It also adds suspense to the film’s melodrama: if this guy’s monologue isn’t credible, then where does the truth lie? This – along with the film’s visual flourishes – gets the viewer’s blood pumping.
Wonder Wheel is Allen’s second collaboration with master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. A three-time Oscar winner – Apocalypse Now, Reds, The Last Emperor – Storaro also shot Allen’s gorgeous Café Society (the opening film for Cannes 2016). In this latest effort, Storaro’s lens transforms Brooklyn into a refulgent daydream. Lust translates into literal luster. The characters faces glow with vivid, surreal colors: reds and yellows and oranges. In a key moment of betrayal, a shadow slinks across a character’s face. The Coney Island waterfront is also a treat: every square inch of beach is pocked with people like a 1950’s Where’s Waldo page. Visually stunning.
But that’s where the good news stops. Despite strong performances, despite stunning visuals, the film sags. It actually feels overwritten: as if Allen didn’t allow enough takes for the actors to master his wordy banter. Some lines are intentionally flowery – i.e., when characters compare themselves to players in a Greek Tragedy – but it’s hard to tell which clunkiness was intended, which not.Some lines are painfully expositional. The second or third time we have to hear an explanation of Carolina’s mobster ex-husband subplot, we zone out.
Even the music disappoints. Allen employs his typical score-abstinent soundtrack, with a bunch of obvious 50’s tunes as zeitgeist reminders. A few choices are well-timed: Paul Anka’s Red Roses For A Blue Lady is one stand-out – but others feel haphazard, thrown in. And they drone on too long.
In sum, Wonder Wheel has its moments, some great, a lot not. As audience, one can’t help comparing the onscreen relationships with Allen’s own romances – but perhaps that’s why the film’s self-awareness feels almost defensive. In fact, Wonder Wheel invites comparison to Louis C.K.’s debut feature film, I Love You, Daddy. In an irony that Timberlake’s persona would relish, C.K.’s feature feels more like a Woody Allen film than this one.
Which is to say that Wonder Wheel wants to be funnier. In this film, emotional drama dominates – and occasionally, ickily, plot. Happily for us, Allen skips the Mafioso clichés; he lets his casting do the legwork. Also happily, there are comic moments: a tongue-in- cheek close-up revealing Carolina’s ex-husband is one of the film’s better jokes.
But far too often, Allen is retreading old ground: character, content, form, technique – his own filmic nostalgia trip. Yes, he’s good at onscreen yearning, for a past that is superior to the present; but this film doesn’t equal earlier memories. While Wonder Wheel recalls a poignant Coney Island, Annie Hall evokes Brooklyn far more effectively. Even Winslet’s leading lady is a throwback to Sleeper, where Allen played Blanche Dubois himself while under hypnosis.
Is this the problem of an aging filmmaker? Maybe, if you’re Woody Allen, you’ve outlived the need for an airtight script. Maybe, after so many successes, your voice has been softened by too many yes-men. Or maybe, for those of us in Allen’s audience, the neurotic yattering that we loved in his earliest films just isn’t as satisfying in the mouths of others.
Or maybe it’s simply that this film falls short. It strikes a mood, almost effortlessly, but doesn’t reach beyond that. It hints at the possibility that it might go all-out bonkers, but doesn’t deliver. In terms of form, it doesn’t break enough rules; in terms of content, it has too many turning points. On many levels, it’s a film about love – but it does argument better than romance. The familial disputes are indeed painful to watch, but not as cathartic as those explored by Scorsese or Coppola, and nowhere near the high octane of Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. As a whole, it lacks oomph: the drama coalesces like a slow-motion car wreck, but never fully transcends. In the third act, finally, it picks up the pace, but then ends abruptly just when it’s getting good. We hope the film will end with a bang; it ends with a whimper.
Whatever the reason for Wonder Wheel’s failures, Allen is already deep into his next installment, the next leg of his artistic journey. Here’s hoping that his new effort will build on the portions of past work that do excel. After all, we’d all welcome another Woody Allen classic, a deeply personal return-to- form that surprises on multiple levels – but like his own self-aware characters, Allen might mock us for being romantic dreamers.
Reviewed on October 14th at the 2017 New York Film Festival – Closing Night Selection. 101 mins.