• [The Daily] NYFF 2017: Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel

    By David Hudson


    Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel is “a passionate comedic drama that unfolds some of the tones of Allen’s youth,” writes the New Yorker’s Richard Brody. “It’s set in the early nineteen-fifties, in Coney Island, and Allen lends the drama a structure something along the lines of Henry James, using a protagonist-narrator, Mickey (Justin Timberlake), an aspiring playwright who’s the central consciousness of the movie but not the center of the action. The movie is the story of two women—Ginny (Kate Winslet), a waitress who lives with her alcoholic husband, Humpty (Jim Belushi), in a beachside cottage, and Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty’s long-estranged daughter from a previous marriage, who turns up unannounced in an attempt to flee hit men connected to her husband, a gangster. The name of Eugene O’Neill crops up throughout the film, and it’s something of a clue to the nature of Allen’s ambitions—Wonder Wheel is a story of desire and frustration, poverty and violence, in a working-class world of higher aspirations amid daily degradation.”

    “Woody Allen films now come in three essential flavors, or maybe it just comes down to three levels of quality,” suggests Variety’s Owen Gleiberman. “Once in a blue jasmine moon, he comes up with an enthralling act of high-wire inspiration, like Match Point or Blue Jasmine, that proves that he can still be as major as any filmmaker out there. Then there are the quaintly crafted, phoned-in mediocrities, like Café Society or To Rome with Love, where the jokes feel old and the situations older, like the Woody Allen version of paint by numbers. But then there are the middle-drawer Allen films that still percolate with energy and flair, like Bullets Over Broadway or Vicky Cristina Barcelona. They’re too baubly and calculated to be great, with each Woody trope locking into place, yet damned if they don’t hold you and even, in their way, add up to something (even if it’s ultimately something minor). Wonder Wheel is one of those movies.”

    “Given Allen’s strict one-a-year strategy, his later films are usually accompanied with a lingering feeling that he’s on autopilot, sticking to themes and dynamics that he’s comfortable with, rushing through familiar territory with very little to add,” writes the Guardian’s Benjamin Lee. “If you’re playing Woody Allen bingo and your card reads ‘love triangle,’ ‘emotionally frantic older woman,’ ‘fresh-faced ingenue,’ and ‘handsome starving artist,’ then you’re in luck. Wonder Wheel covers ground that he’s covered before, which at this point is what we’ve come to expect from Allen. But unlike in his finer relationship-based dramas, there’s a shortage of insight, wit or much else to distinguish it from the pack.”

    “Winslet is really Going For It,” writes New York’s David Edelstein. “Her Ginny sinned in her own eyes (she cheated on her first husband, a jazz drummer) and turned to Humpty (Jesus, that name) for security for her and her little son. Her desperation is so naked it’s surprising the other characters haven’t already had her committed.”

    “Allen is eighty-one years old,” notes Dan Callahan at TheWrap, “yet he still has retained the romantic point of view of a teenager who hasn’t seen or experienced much of anything yet about life. Mickey wants to be a playwright, and he speaks with Ginny about tragic plays and how tragic protagonists are destroyed by a fatal flaw, but Allen is too self-aware and cold a creative personality to create a genuine tragedy in Wonder Wheel. Instead, he makes a gesture towards a tragic situation.”

    “As in Café Society, Allen's most valuable collaborators, alongside his female lead, are cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and production designer Santo Loquasto,” writes David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter. “The dazzling opening panorama of the jam-packed beach at Coney Island, with the amusement-park attractions in the background, evokes countless classic photographs of the Brooklyn leisure destination in its heyday, before seediness had fully taken hold. Not since Francis Ford Coppola's One From the Heart has Storaro's paintbox been richer; the lustrous colors are eye-popping.”

    “Part of what makes Wonder Wheel such a frustrating experience is that it’s so well-executed,” finds Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey, who notes that it is, “to put it mildly, a weird week to see a new Woody Allen movie.” Wonder Wheel “lands as grenades are still exploding from the Harvey Weinstein scandal—many of their pins pulled by Ronan Farrow, Allen’s biological son, via his explosive New Yorker report earlier this week. And as we know, Farrow and Allen are estranged over the director’s own allegations of sexual misconduct; when those charges first surfaced, in the early 1990s, Allen navigated the accordant choppy career waters with the help of Mr. Weinstein, whose Miramax company distributed four subsequent Allen films that decade, including the ‘comeback’ efforts Bullets Over Broadway and Mighty Aphrodite. Allen’s name has been omnipresent in the collective soul-searching that’s followed the Weinstein bombshells, usually as part of an answer (along with Roman Polanski and Casey Affleck) as to whether Weinstein’s career is over; Allen has, unsurprisingly, not commented on the Weinstein controversy.”

    And, as Zack Sharf reports for IndieWire, Amazon Studios has cancelled tonight’s red carpet celebrations leading up to the official world premiere that’ll close this year’s New York Film Festival. “The decision to remove the red carpet comes in the immediate aftermath of Amazon announcing that Roy Price, the head of Amazon Studios, has been put on a leave of absence following allegations of sexual harassment.”

    Back to the film itself. “It would be going too far to say Wonder Wheel is an instant Woody Allen classic,” writes Graham Fuller for Screen, “but it’s a reminder that he’s still a force to be reckoned with and a great director of actresses especially.” For IndieWire’s Eric Kohn,Wonder Wheel stands out as a dark, brooding dramedy, one tinged with more overarching sadness than any of Allen’s late-period offerings.” At the Playlist, Kimber Myers gives Wonder Wheel a B-.

    Update, 10/16: Winslet is given “a succession of near-hysterical blow-outs to negotiate,” writes Godfrey Cheshire at RogerEbert.com. “While some of the writing may be contrived and artificial, as always in Allen, the actress uses it to her advantage, creating a tense, near-volcanic portrait of female desperation. Timberlake, Belushi and Temple are also very good, demonstrating again Allen’s skills (as both writer and director) with actors. In all, the film proved far more agreeable than recent Allen offerings including Irrational Man and Café Society, which struck me as absolutely torturous.”

    Update, 10/22: “Ginny looks to her affair with Mickey as an escape hatch from a life of waitressing and cajoling the alcoholic Humpty into not resuming his drinking,” writes Jesse Hassenger in Brooklyn Magazine. “So when Mickey starts to develop eyes for Carolina (awkwardly and explicitly stated, as so many Allen characters talk about their supposedly hidden desires out loud), Ginny can see another dream start to disintegrate in front of her.” As Mickey, Timberlake “is great at making callowness feel temporarily charming—and at making charm sometimes feel a little callow. He’s the perfect failure of a way out for Ginny.”

    Update, 11/29: “Given that it was very well received by an alarming number of colleagues when it played at the New York Film Festival in September, I’ve been trying to figure out a way that Wonder Wheel can be seen as good,” writes Glenn Kenny at RogerEbert.com. “Turgid even in its brightness, overwritten in a way that does nothing to camoflauge its first-draft quality, jaw-droppingly overacted by all but one of its central cast members; it’s a Woody Allen disaster that elicits both a cocked head and a dropped jaw. Given that Mr. Allen’s professional approach to moviemaking most resembles a basketball player’s free-throw practice—he endeavors to make a picture once a year, no exceptions, and has been hitting that goal for decades—variability of quality is a given. But, man, this one.”

    Updates, 12/10: Wonder Wheel comes in at #9 on John Waters’s end-of-the-year top ten for Artforum: “An impeccably acted potboiler in which Woody channels Tennessee Williams meets The Honeymooners, with a pyromaniac kid thrown in to add a touch of Bad Seed flavor. Say what you will, Mr. Allen has never made a bad movie. This is one of his best.”

    But for the New York TimesManohla Dargis, this is “one of his more unfortunate contributions to cinema. . . . I tend to think it’s a bad idea to put a movie on the couch, but what if it climbs on the couch and then starts winking? . . . At one point, after Ginny has turned into Blanche DuBois, she announces, ‘When it comes to love we often turn out to be our own worst enemy.’ And not for the first time you wonder what Mr. Allen, who has long blurred fact and fiction, thinks he’s doing here. . . . Critics have often uneasily ignored his history, but he himself seems perversely intent on invoking it.”

    For Adam Nayman, writing for the Ringer, “Wonder Wheel is magical in a superficial way; it has a surface beauty that can’t disguise the material’s basic banality and ugliness—or the feeling that we’ve seen it all before. Allen was chasing Williams as recently as 2013’s Blue Jasmine, which won Cate Blanchett a Best Actress Oscar partially for channeling some of Vivien Leigh’s mania, but mostly for managing to ground a character comprised of pieces of other hysterical heroines in something like a plausible emotional and behavioral context. Winslet, who is no less gifted a performer than Blanchett, doesn’t achieve a similar gravitas, nor does the movie around her. And Storaro’s cinematography, while remarkable on a technical level, becomes the equivalent of Blanche’s papier-mâché lantern—a cheap bauble slung decorously overtop of a stark, unrewarding artistic perspective.”

    “Through the splashes of bright colors, the touches of local color, and the reverse telescope of distant memory and period nostalgia, Wonder Wheel virtually shrieks with confessional anguish and is scarred with indelible regret,” finds the New Yorker’s Richard Brody. “In the bleak realm of amoral horror and troubled conscience that Allen depicts, he isn’t just a virtual character or participant—he’s also an observer. He has been working in the movies for half a century, and in entertainment even longer. The world that he depicts in his films is one in which the powerful abuse their power to prey upon the vulnerable and, until now, have, for the most part, gotten away with it. It’s also a world that, because of the courageous testimony of women including, crucially, Dylan Farrow, is now coming to light and, perhaps, to change.”

    “I used to say I was a Woody Allen fan; now I’m done with him,” announces Miriam Bale in the Hollywood Reporter. “I decided very recently, with much struggle, that I no longer want to be part of contributing to his income or promoting his films—to increasing his power. It’s taken me a lifetime to get to this point.”

    Wonder Wheel all but draws you a schematic,” argues Sam Adams at Slant. “Actress with shaky grip on reality, enraged by her romantic partner’s affair with her younger stepdaughter, commits unforgivable crime to sabotage their relationship, and winds up bereft and alone. Substitute in manufacturing charges of sexual assault and indoctrinating a child to corroborate them—Allen’s account of Farrow’s behavior—for sending a young woman to her death, and it’s a snug fit. In that sense, Wonder Wheel is the opposite of a mea culpa.”

    In a similar vein, Alan Scherstuhl in the Village Voice: “Here’s a Woody Allen movie about a ‘moody’ and ‘crazy’ washed-up redheaded actress furious that her lover has jilted her for her kinda-sorta daughter. The redhead does something unconscionable to punish the couple and then has to find a way to live with it. Meanwhile, her much younger son, a creature of aimless rage, lights fire after fire around the Coney Island boardwalk, the place where Allen’s most beloved character—Annie Hall’s Alvy Singer—grew up. The little pyro is happy to watch the world he’s inherited burn. In Allen’s mind, is the kid Ronan Farrow?”

    “According to Eric Lax’s new book Start to Finish: Woody Allen and the Art of Moviemaking, Allen generally feels that a movie character speaking directly to the audience ‘distances you from the intense reality of it,’” notes Michael Sragow, writing for Film Comment. “He also thinks that heightened stage language doesn’t play well on screen: ‘It’s film, so characters talk like people in real life; they’re not speaking poetically like Tennessee Williams writes because in my films that would sound artificial.’ So Allen takes a couple of risks in Wonder Wheel, beginning the film with Rubin breaking the fourth wall, then peppering it with fervid dialogue and blatant dramatic devices. . . . But too often, Allen undermines his own love for heated arguments and melodrama with rue and sarcastic wit.”

    Allen “has been cranking out a movie a year for damn near half a century,” notes Sean Burns, writing for WBUR, “and these days mostly seems to be mixing and matching scenes and themes from his previous pictures more out of habit than inspiration. A big exception was last summer’s Café Society, Allen’s most ambitious and affecting movie in ages, energized by a luminous performance by Kristen Stewart and Vittorio Storaro’s breathtaking digital cinematography. Alas, Wonder Wheel is a return to the familiar grind, running off a checklist of the filmmaker’s tired pet obsessions while occasionally playing like a parody of post-war Broadway miserabilism.”

    “The harsh truth is that confessional elements tend to be the default source of fascination, however perverse, in Allen’s later work—a.k.a. just about anything he’s made this millennium, supposed ‘comebacks’ included,” writes A. A. Dowd at the A.V. Club. “Remove the consciously or unconsciously personal angle, and Wonder Wheel is just another case of Allen repeating himself, tackling themes, plot points, and philosophical ideas he’s better handled elsewhere.”

    “In the end,” writes Steve Davis in the Austin Chronicle, “when a fluttery, whiskey-soaked Ginny (in full Blanche DuBois mode) barks, ‘Oh God, spare me the bad drama,’ you’ll think: from her lips to Woody’s ears.”

    The Stranger presents “Competing Reviews” from Katie Herzog and Sean Nelson.

    Update, 12/18: For Mike D’Angelo, “even if we all still loved and respected Allen, this would still be just another of the lazy exercises in pseudo-literary pastiche that he's been churning out in his dotage.”

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