As one Hollywood sexual predator after another is exposed, you have to wonder if Woody Allen’s career is approaching its end. After all, his own son, Ronan Farrow, wrote the stories that brought down Harvey Weinstein. Considering Farrow’s past statements regarding his sister Dylan’s accusations against Allen, one wonders if that history isn’t part of why he chased down the Weinstein story in the first place.
Allen has always attracted talented actors, but public outcry gets louder with each new film and it’s only a matter of time before working with him is the equivalent of career suicide. Given that, it would be easy to dismiss his latest film, Wonder Wheel. Unfortunately, it’s too damn good.
Set in Coney Island, New York in the 1950’s, the film centers around Kate Winslet’s Ginny, a depressed former-actress-turned-waitress who cheats on her carousel-operator husband, Humpty (Jim Belushi), with Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a handsome young lifeguard who dreams of being a playwright. Despite her pyromaniac son and her unhappy marriage, Ginny seems well on her way to a happy ending with Mickey until Humpty’s estranged daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple) appears. It’s a situation ripe for drama and Allen crafts a decent narrative from it. Well, mostly.
Wonder Wheel gets off to a pretty rocky start. For some reason, the timeline is jumbled. Though we meet Timberlake’s character first, we don’t learn Mickey has been having an affair with Ginny all summer until after Carolina is introduced. It’s a strange choice that does nothing but remind the audience that they’re watching a movie. The same goes for the smattering of scenes where Mickey speaks directly to the audience.
Thankfully, that narration disappears as the film goes on, but the damage is done. Mickey’s self-aggrandizing doesn’t make him very easy to root for and it’s difficult to see the youthful charm through the pretension. It also emphasizes Timberlake’s limitations. There’s a certain smarminess necessary to the character, but Timberlake’s acting isn’t skilled enough to make that phoniness feel intentional.
Luckily, the other, stronger performances bolster Timberlake. Belushi does well as a working-class lug whose imposing exterior and loud mouth belie the vulnerability and sweetness at his center. Temple, who often portrays girls jaded beyond their years, plays against type here. Carolina is an ingenue so guileless and unsullied that it can almost be difficult to believe she was once married to a mobster at all.
The centerpiece, however, is Winslet. She’s the desperate housewife par excellence, a tragic figure always on the edge of hysteria. The performance is theatrical, to say the least, but there’s narrative justification for it. She’s a former actress who thinks she somehow got stuck living in the wrong role, everything she does is performance. The way Winslet cycles through the levels of both Ginny’s and her own artifice is something to behold and some of her best work comes in scenes where the camera is focused solely on her.
Take, for instance, the moment when, after a tryst under the boardwalk, Ginny tells Mickey how her first marriage ended. Some of what she says is rehearsed, but then she goes off script and as her mask falls away, the lighting shifts to emphasize it. The flattering, golden light of the amusements on the boardwalk slowly give way to cold, harsh moonlight and we realize the depth of Ginny’s sadness in a way her words alone can’t express.
It’s not the only instance in the film where the lighting acts almost as another character and this is possibly Allen’s best-looking film in years. If anyone is going to rob cinematographer Roger Deakins of his long-awaited Oscar this year, it’ll be Wonder Wheel‘s Vittorio Storaro. Every moment is a feast for the eyes, but Stararo’s work would be wasted without Santo Loquasto’s detailed production design and Suzy Benzinger’s lush costuming. The world they create isn’t so much realistic as highly stylized and colorful, like a modern recreation of Douglas Sirk’s technicolor melodramas from the ‘50s. It’s a meticulously crafted film and that attention to detail only emphasizes the script’s inadequacies.
Where Blue Jasmine felt like an egregious rip-off of A Streetcar Named Desire, Wonder Wheel feels like an homage to films like All that Heaven Allows or Written on the Wind, but with a dash of Eugene O’Neill-level tragedy. The playwright is mentioned repeatedly during the film and were this story performed on a Broadway stage, it would fit right in with the kind of kitchen sink realism O’Neill helped pioneer. Indeed, one of the very first things we see Ginny do is angrily chop vegetables at her kitchen sink while Humpty berates Carolina and it’s so on-the-nose, you wonder if Allen is deliberately making a joke.
However, much as Wonder Wheel resembles Sirkian melodramas, Allen’s own preoccupations can’t help but shine through. Sirk’s films pitied the older women slowly suffocating under domesticity and societal expectations, but Allen has always preferred ingenues and it’s difficult to feel sorry for Ginny when she’s trapped in a hell of her own making. Regardless of its confused perspective, Wonder Wheel is Allen’s best and best-looking film in years. It’s far from perfect, but it’s hard to ignore.