Woody Allen’s latest film, Wonder Wheel, is getting consistently panned, but I thought it was okay, and per usual, he gets the best out of his lead actress, this time Kate Winslet. In certain respects it’s similar to Blue Jasmine, his last generally praised film, in that it deals with the mental breakdown of a beleaguered woman.
There are also other certain Allen indicators, such as a romanticism of New York, this time Coney Island, which probably never looked so good, even in its heyday, and an admiration for classic American drama. There are bits of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and naked references to Eugene O’Neill. Allen, in interviews years ago, stated that comedy was eating dinner at the children’s table, and drama was the adults. He has made a few excellent dramas, but this one is a bit shopworn.
It’s about 1950, and Coney Island is starting to get seedy. The film is narrated by Justin Timberlake as a lifeguard and graduate student in drama (Timberlake, a fine actor, is too contemporary for this role). He falls in love with the older, harried, Ginny (Winslet), who is in a loveless marriage to the boorish Jim Belushi. She has a son from a previous marriage who is a pyromaniac (this is the only comedy of the movie, as the kid keeps lighting fires, even in his psychiatrist’s office). They both work on the boardwalk, she as a waitress in a clam house, and he as the proprietor of the carousel.
Into their lives walks Juno Temple as Belushi’s estranged daughter, who is on the run from her mobster husband (Allen has often used the Mafia in his films, but it’s getting to be a lazy choice–his actors as mobsters are two guys well known from The Sopranos). Belushi agrees to hide her, while Winslet finds happiness with Timberlake. But then Timberlake falls in love with Temple. Anyone who knows anything of Allen’s history will recognize falling in love with the daughter, even step, of your lover is something he knows about it.
The film is beautiful, shot by Vittorio Storarro. I lived in the New York area for almost forty years and never got to Coney Island, but I think I prefer not to go now and just picture the place as shown here. The photography, and Winslet’s performance, are the reasons to see this. She plays a difficult woman, always having headaches, almost always disagreeable. She quickly becomes jealous of Temple, for good reason, and the climax of the film is fairly predictable. It’s one of those acts that Allen contemplates in Crimes and Misdemeanors, Irrational Man, or Match Point.
I don’t think Wonder Wheel is one of his classics but isn’t terrible, either. He may be out of comedy ideas, but I’ll continue to watch his films. I’ve seen everyone of them, and haven’t missed one in a theater since before 1979.