Wonder Wheel - This Woody Movie Does Not Rock
Dir: Woody Allen
Starring Kate Winslett, Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple, Jim Belushi
Through the golden light of Vittorio Storaro’s photography, Wonder Wheel may well the most beautiful movie Woody Allen has ever made. Unfortunately, it’s by no means one of his strongest.
If Blue Jasmine was Woody’s attempt to give us his Blanche DuBois (a challenge that Cate Blanchett rose to with unbridled skill), then this is Allen the writer attempting to deliver his full-on, all-out Tennessee Williams, even finding time to recast Winslett as yet another Blanche somewhere towards the end. And for all the lush beauty of its visual sheen, and Allen/Storaro’s probing handheld, in motion camera, the film is remarkably stagey, marked by dialogue so arch that it renders its characters barely human, certainly not human in any relatable way. Whilst constant cutaways to Winslett pyromaniac of a son are there to be…what? Light relief? (Hardly.) Some commentary on the nature of the tragic family Wonder Wheel focuses on? (Obscure, if there.)
All of which is odd, as much as it is disappointing, Allen is certainly on familiar territory, location-wise. Coney Island was the principal location of his wonderful and generally under-valued Radio Days. And if Annie Hall’s unreliable narrator is to be believed, Alvy Singer grew up under the rollercoaster. Set in the 1950s, a young Alvy Singer could well be wondering somewhere in the background of Wonder Wheel (if we were to view Allen’s oeuvre as some kind of Woodyverse .) He would at least be at home here, which is more than can be said for sadly miscast Timberlake, who not only has to unconvincingly break the fourth wall and talk/narrate to the audience – a technique completely at odds with the sweaty family drama at play here, but, cast as a lifeguard, ironically Justin can be seen drowning in just about every scene. (And he’s a decent actor normally – just doesn’t “fit” here, something that director Allen should cop to some of the blame for.)
We here at Last Word are generally fans of Allen’s so-called “later period.” Yes, it’s more hit and miss that the glory days, but it has produced one of his very best pictures (Midnight In Paris) and one of his strongest dramedies (Blue Jasmine.) And even such lesser works as Magic In The Moonlight, Tor Rome With Love and, especially, Café Society, were as sure-handed as they were light of foot. What’s confusing here is how out of sorts Allen seems as a filmmaker, struggling to find anything approaching a consistent tone, lurching from bittersweet nostalgia to overwrought family tragedy. In many ways, the film it most resembles in Allen’s back catalogue, is September from all those years ago or, worse even, Interiors. But both those movies at least were assured of what they wanted to be.
We feel compelled to point out that our opinion of this movie is by no means coloured by the current climate in which the proved-innocent-25-years-ago (!) Allen currently finds himself inappropriately co-opted by the #MeToo movement. (Michael Caine – we’re ashamed of you, Sir.) We’re just very disappointed – not by the man, but by the man’s art. (Which is how it should be.)
Like the fish Belushi brings home from the pier every night, Wonder Wheel just flounders.
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