We’re at a point now where there are more Woody Allen movies made after his incestuous indiscretions than there were before. It’s been impossible to watch a Woody movie without suffering through the “separate the artist from the art” debate for so long that it’s hard to even remember a time when Allen wasn’t problematic. ‘Wonder Wheel’, the filmmaker’s latest annual output, may not have been designed as a dare to audiences to see how far they’ll let him go, but released in the winter of 2017 when things have never been so chilly toward abusers in the arts community, it’s kind of astounding this thing exists.
Look, I really don’t want to exclusively examine Woody Allen movies through the framework of his unfortunate personal life. This year of all years, it would be nice to not have to think about such things. Sadly, that’s impossible with ‘Wonder Wheel’. The film is a disturbing melodrama about the tragedy of narcissism and the ways we can justify our own wretched behavior to ourselves. So, you know… he makes it hard. The movie has a beautiful surface provided by legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (‘Apocalypse Now’) and the production team, as well as a narrator who pokes fun at the excessive symbolism and strained realism of the screenplay. The product is gorgeously put together and even rather clever. It’s just tough not to read too much into the proceedings.
Problems start with the fact that the goofball narrator is played by Justin Timberlake as an obvious Woody stand-in (which is a bit much). He warns that the story to follow will be overwrought with melodrama and heavy-handed symbolism. He doesn’t lie. We meet repressed housewife Ginny (Kate Winslet), a failed actress who now works as a waitress. She talks about “playing the role” of a waitress and hating it. She’s permanently frazzled. Her son is an amateur arsonist who likes to set things ablaze just to watch them burn. (Foreshadowing alert!) A big part of her pain stems from an emotionally abusive relationship with her husband, Humpty (Jim Belushi in a series of cartoonish undershirts to underline his abusiveness, who also owns a merry-go-round to underline that his life is trapped in a repeating circle). Things get nutty when Humpty’s long lost troubled daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), returns from an abusive marriage to a gangster. She now wants to better her life and has daddy bending over backwards to make it happen, which upsets Ginny since he’s the same man who crushed her own dreams.
The plot gets even more melodramatic once Ginny starts having an affair with Timberlake’s lifeguard/narrator/wannabe author, Mickey. They share secret kisses and whisper hidden secrets to each other. It gives Ginny a new lease on life and fuels Mickey’s writer brain. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before Mickey meets and falls for Carolina as well. That causes all sorts of jealousy and confusion in our anti-heroine. Eventually, she takes revenge. She does something horrible that she justifies to herself through her own misery. It’s rough stuff. At the same time, Ginny’s revenge is also her biggest selfish action in a story in which she’s constantly belittled and emotionally battered by the selfishness of all the men around her. In a way, she’s no worse than them. Her crime is just bigger.
The movie is essentially a rehash of ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’ with the nostalgic 1950s Coney Island setting of the ‘Annie Hall’ flashbacks or ‘Radio Days’, adding in the troubled Blanche DuBois-esque protagonist of ‘Blue Jasmine’ plus a splash the period victimized wife of ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’. Allen is treading over ground he’s covered plenty of times before. That’s not news, and is a problem with the bulk of his films from the last few decades. ‘Wonder Wheel’ is still a clever concoction of dramatic elements, one of his most technically accomplished films in years, and is anchored by a fabulous performance by Kate Winslet. There are many ways in which it’s the best Woody movie in a while, accepting that the endless repetition in his work is a given at this point.
On the other hand, the movie has so many icky personal Woody Allen elements in play to make the whole thing feel a bit gross. It’s another story of neurotics justifying horrible actions to themselves, another tale of an affair that tears a married couple apart, another romance with an awkward age difference between lovers, and another movie that treats any character who isn’t a wannabe intellectual artist as a cartoonish buffoon. Anyone who has trouble separating Allen’s art from his life will feel nauseous. Anyone who eats up his work as if there’s nothing problematic going on will find interesting moments amidst all the self-plagiarism. No one will feel particularly satisfied. I guess that means it’s another Woody Allen project. You know the routine. See you again next year for a similar review of a similar movie.