Now more than ever, it is a difficult task to review a new Woody Allen film.
The big names that once clamoured to work with him are now doing all they can to distance themselves as the Time’s Up movement shines new light on allegations against the film maker that have been largely ignored since 1992. There are even rumours that his next film, A Rainy Day In New York, may never be released, making this potentially the last significant cinematic work of his 50+ year career.
Questions of the film maker’s guilt, or whether it’s OK to watch his films now, are best saved for another article. From here on, we will be looking at Wonder Wheel and whether his latest story matches up to his most famous work.
Kate Winslet stars as Ginny, an unhappily married waitress working in a 1950’s Coney Island amusement park. Dreaming of a life away from her slovenly husband (Jim Belushi), her drudgery is alleviated by her secret affair with lifeguard Mickey (Justin Timberlake). Things get complicated, however, when Mickey takes a shine to her husband’s daughter Carolina (Juno Temple), on the run from her gangster ex-husband.
Aside from the lead and the beautiful camerawork, this is Allen doing an impression of himself. There’s a malcontent main character, a charismatic romance that lures them away, and some trouble with the law. Normally his writing fills in the gaps, but the script is laboured and formulaic. Characters explain things down to the very last detail, and story becomes a slog towards a rather inevitable ending.
At the centre, trying to tie everything together, is a terrific Winslet. She plays Ginny as a woman desperate for escape, and inconsolably angry when each bit of happiness slips through her fingers. You can see every thought in her head as she wants to believe the affair with Mickey can last, and the resentment at Carolina for being younger, or maybe just more free. She’s met with co-stars that don’t quite hit the mark – Timberlake is stiff as the charming Lothario, narrating the story in a forced accent that ends up grating. Jim Belushi is believable as Ginny’s husband but maybe a little too oafish.
It would be convenient to say this is a sign that Allen has lost it, that just as his public persona began to unravel, so did his on-screen work. In reality, he’s made worse films than Wonder Wheel, and the director has often gone through fallow periods. However, if matters outside of film making mean this is one of his final movies, it’s a flat note to go out on.
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