• [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.”

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