An abject indulgence in miserabilism, Woody Allen’s latest film is a complete misfire.
Allen has been making films since 1969 and they’ve been released on a yearly basis since 1982. I became an instant fan when I saw Love and Death theatrically; I remember laughing hysterically. I saw and enjoyed everything he made through Radio Days (1987). Both September and Another Woman were lackluster, while Crimes and Misdemeanors was clearly a masterpiece, yet reflected a sour, superior-minded worldview that left me sad and infuriated.
Then came the accusations of sexual abuse (and his marriage to a young woman who had been his companion’s adopted daughter) in 1991 and 1992, which were covered extensively in the New York tabloids, where I lived at the time, and it was impossible to relate to him as I had in the past. In the years that followed, I saw most of Allen’s films and found some of them wanting, some of them acceptable, and a few quite entertaining (Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine).
Now on the heels of the fondly nostalgic Cafe Society (Hollywood in the 1930s), Allen has made Wonder Wheel (Brooklyn in the 1950s), and it’s a glum, dead-serious dramatic piece that might have played better on a tiny stage Off-Off-Broadway. It’s set in the seaside Coney Island neighborhood in New York, where Ginny (Kate Winslet), her alcoholic husband Humpty (Jim Belush) and Richie (Jack Gore), Ginny’s pyromaniac young son from her first marriage, live together unhappily, with the titular amusement park attraction staring at them through the multitude of windows in the tiny living quarters.
Humpty’s daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) arrives without notice, on the run from her gangster husband, and that only increases the tensions at home. Besides Humpty’s alcoholism and Richie’s pyromania, there’s also the matter of Ginny’s affair with a younger lifeguard, Mickey (Justin Timberlake). Oh, and also, it’s a sultry summer in an era before air conditioning,, so everyone is sweating and uncomfortable, too.
In sum, it’s an edgy, unpleasant environment, filled with mostly disagreeable characters. The most sympathetic is probably the feckless Carolina, who runs back to her father after years apart only due to her fearful circumstances. Humpty warms to her quickly, seizing on the opportunity he lost to become close to his daughter in her younger years, and Carolina is only too happy to reconcile with him.
Ginny, however, is the primary focus of the film. She blames herself for the breakup of her first marriage and believes that is the reason why Richie became a pyromaniac. Dissatisfied with Humpty, who pays little attention to her yet expects her to care for all domestic duties, and dissatisfied with her long hours as a boardwalk waitress, she falls into a secretive affair with the handsome Mickey and dreams of a better life.
Mickey, however, catches sight of Carolina and that spells the end of his relationship with Ginny, which he always considered temporary in his own mind, anyway, though he carries on his affair because … he can.
Production design by Santo Loquasto and art direction by Miguel Lopez-Castillo are both top-notch in recreating the period, but Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography is too keenly self-aware to be effective, all shifting colors that draw attention away from the actors.
As often happens in Allen’s films, the actors appear to be left to themselves to deliver the performances desired by the director, and so Winslet, Belushi, Temple, and Timberlake all provide broad interpretations of their characters, never quite on target.
Woody Allen has already moved on to his next project and so should audiences.
Wonder Wheel opens on Friday, December 8.