Woody Allen’s new film Wonder Wheel is being released this weekend in select cities.
What is the point of reviewing a Woody Allen film in 2017? By now, the majority of moviegoers have divided themselves into three camps for whom a movie review is unnecessary. The first is the completist who has stuck by the filmmaker so long that anything new is a must-see. The second is the disillusioned fan who will stay away because they think Allen hasn’t made a worthwhile film in two decades (give or take five years). The third is the person who finds the details of Allen’s personal life, both the alleged stuff and the actual stuff, too upsetting to ignore for 100 minutes in the dark.
(There’s plenty of discussion to be had about that last topic — and the internet already offers plenty — but I am not going to engage with it any more deeply here than I just did.)
Well, this review exists for the Woody Allen viewers like myself. I haven’t seen everything, but I’ve seen a lot. And I know that while most of the last two decades (give or take five years) has been pretty forgettable, sometimes you get a gem like Vicky Cristina Barcelona or something inoffensively watchable like Midnight in Paris.
If you take Woody Allen’s films on a case-by-case basis like me, I have good news and bad news for you. The good news is that Allen has re-teamed with legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who shot Allen’s last film Cafe Society (as well as some random ’70s movie called Apocalypse Now), and Wonder Wheel is even more visually expressive and striking. One of Allen’s best-looking films ever. The bad news is that, like Cafe Society, Wonder Wheel is otherwise a muddle of strong scenes and weak scenes that is probably skippable for the non-completist.
Full of long dialogue scenes confined to single rooms, Wonder Wheel is Allen’s most play-like film since his underrated 1987 chamber drama September. With a narrator who is a wannabe playwright, and unsubtle name-drops of Allen’s dramatist heroes Anton Chekhov and Eugene O’Neill, the film’s theatricality is clearly intended. The problem is that big chunks of Allen’s dialogue, which maybe sounded stylized in his head, alternate between purple over-writing and on-the-nose exposition. The actors can’t totally be blamed when they inevitably flounder in search of a tone or a reality for their characters.
Jim Belushi does his best as a working-class guy who is barely scraping together two bits as a carousel operator in 1950s Coney Island. When he initially comes onscreen, he offers the perfect amount of bluster, charm, and weariness for the part. If Allen had bothered to create a character that was more than skin-deep, one could see Belushi receiving the kind of “comeback” hype he no doubt was hoping for when he took on this film.
Kate Winslet probably has the trickiest role, as Belushi’s disgruntled wife. Stuck waitressing in a crab shack on the boardwalk, Winslet’s character is a former stage actress hungry for something more. Allen gives her plenty of long, spotlight-snagging monologues — some good, some patience-testing — but none have the concise brilliance, tangible ache, or basic believability of Elaine Stritch’s brilliant soliloquy about getting old and losing her looks in September. As such, Winslet sometimes reads onscreen like a character who happens to be melodramatic and theatrical but then also sometimes just reads like a stilted actor. Again, I think the material bears a big portion of the blame for this. Why don’t you try to make the declaration, “I’ve become consumed with jealousy!,” sound like something a human being would genuinely say?
Justin Timberlake is the aforementioned narrator and would-be playwright, who spends the summer working as a Coney Island lifeguard. His character becomes Winslet’s illicit lover, partly because he is fascinated by the real-life drama created by an extramarital affair. Timberlake is affable but uncharacteristically bland, as though he was focusing his entire acting energy on the task of making his Tennessee accent sound believably Brooklyn. He doesn’t totally pull off that part of the performance either.
Of the central quartet, Juno Temple offers the most satisfying and affecting turn. Temple plays Belushi’s estranged daughter, who returns home after her marriage to a racketeer turns sour. The idea is to lay low, since the gangster’s men will be on her trail. Temple’s character gets a job at the same crab shack as Winslet, and she ends up falling for the same guy as well. Unfortunately for Winslet, Timberlake’s lifeguard (understandably) likes Temple right back.
While technically I believe Wonder Wheel passes the Bechdel test, it certainly doesn’t pass the test in spirit. Pretty much every conversation that Temple and Winslet have are either about Belushi and his temper or Timberlake and his appeal for both women. The whole second half of the film is pretty much devoted to Winslet’s sublimated anger toward Temple for liking her lover.
Although, to be fair, most of Belushi’s scenes involve him just talking about his offscreen daughter too, providing exposition about her that we mostly already know and don’t need to have reiterated. (As you may have gathered, I think the script could have used some more work.)
Allen’s dramas are typically dour affairs, but the filmmaker provides a few chuckles worth of comic relief here and there. This includes a darkly funny through-line concerning Winslet’s school-age son (played by Jack Gore), who is a movie buff and boardwalk arsonist.
Wonder Wheel opens in select cities on December 1.
More Pop Culture Beast movies – recent reviews:
*Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, starring Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson
*Logan Lucky, starring Channing Tatum and Daniel Craig
*Person to Person, starring Abbi Jacobson and Michael Cera