And people say the Louis C.K. movie is baldly revealing of its creator! Just a couple of years after the risible Magic in the Moonlight, in which Woody Allen posited as dashingly romantic a worldly older gent's crusade to debunk the claims of a much younger woman, here comes Wonder Wheel, in which an aggrieved woman — well, we'll get to it. I'll even toss in a spoiler warning before we do, just in case you're of the belief that forewarning of the details of Wonder Wheel's plot might rob you of its minor pleasures.
I can admit that these do exist. Ambitious for late-late period Allen, the film is set in Coney Island in the ’50s, and as Radio Days and the sprightly Sweet and Lowdown have demonstrated, nostalgia perks the man up. The boardwalk, the beach, vintage books, a pizzeria: The period is lovingly and persuasively evoked, the lighting (from VIP cinematographer Vittorio Storaro) forever shifting with the mood from honeyed gold to seedy neon, sometimes over the course of a long take. And the redoubtable Kate Winslet has her moments in the lead role, but I fear those moments are outnumbered by her on-screen minutes.
Winslet’s character, oyster-bar waitress Ginny, is a minor working-class variation on Cate Blanchett's in Blue Jasmine, herself a minor upper-crust riff on Blanche DuBois. Like Blanchett's Jasmine, Ginny spends the film unraveling and telling us about it, breathlessly, in scenes that too often fail to build or peak. Blanchett invested her commanding power into the dithering, deluded monologues Allen wrote her. Jasmine, after all, had been a grande dame, long accustomed to wealth and power until brought low by the sins of a man. Winslet plays a meeker idea of a shattered woman, the starlet who never was, a dreamer who insists she's only playing the part of a waitress — she's not actually one. Like Jasmine, she keeps a few mementos of her more promising past, in this case costume jewelry she wore in her undistinguished time on the stage. She pulls these treasures from storage and dons them, demanding her son (Jack Gore) — a pipsqueak arsonist, the only entirely fresh Allen creation in the movie — pretend to be impressed. He doesn’t bother.
Allen has written strong roles for women in the past, but in this case the best I can say is that he's written Winslet lots of words, repetitive reams of them, all expressive of Ginny’s anxiety. The camerawork in Allen's customary long takes is fluid, even arresting, but Winslet's performance would benefit from the kind of editing these long takes don't allow. Rather than loose, the ensemble often seems under-rehearsed, and too many of Winslet’s lines have little impact. It’s like the words are dollar bills and her scenes are one of those booths at fairgrounds and game shows where the money flies around and it’s up to you to grab enough to make it worth your while.
Winslet fares best, here, when she has a strong scene partner. Jim Belushi plays Humpty, Ginny’s grousing, abusive husband, hardly the love of her life. Belushi broods and thunders capably, though he’s stuck playing Arthur Miller’s Fred Flintstone. Humpty and Ginny bicker over money, over his alcoholism, over her son (from an earlier man), over his daughter (from an earlier woman), their scenes playing out like sped-up mid-century theater drama, all blue-collar bluntness and declamatory psychology.
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That daughter of his is a blithe beauty played by Juno Temple, the errant wife of a gangster who has sent some goons out to find her. Ginny, meanwhile, falls into a summer fling with a buff lifeguard/wannabe playwright (Justin Timberlake). With him, Ginny cheers up, even flowers, and gets the chance to do the things that women in love do in all Woody Allen movies: get caught in the rain with a man who enjoys foisting books upon her. Wonder Wheel might be a breakthrough for Allen in that it’s the first of his films where each of these scenes of ritualized courtship occurs twice. For love to bloom in the Allenverse, the woman must be doused, and then handed a syllabus. “Now I see rain through your eyes, and it’s beautiful,” Ginny tells her lover, and, seriously, who can blame Winslet for not moving us with a line like that?
Timberlake’s character serves as occasional narrator, stiffly alerting us that we’re in for a tragic melodrama. (Allen’s dialogue defeats Timberlake’s flow.) He even lectures us about hamartia, though it’s not clear exactly what tragic flaw it is that Allen sees in his protagonist, Ginny. She’s lonely and needy, often labeled as “moody” and “crazy” by the men who neglect her. As soon as she’s stolen herself some happiness with Timberlake’s lifeguard, she starts pushing for too much, too fast, and then jealously picking at him if he speaks to other women.
At first, Wonder Wheel might seem a sympathetic portrait of a woman the world doesn’t listen to, a woman with the temerity to expect excitement in her life and bed as she approaches 40. But it turns out the tragic flaw is Allen’s — and I don’t just mean his apparent refusal to bother with multiple drafts of a script. As Ginny and her life unravel, Allen’s sympathy for her seems to dry up, and she becomes something like the villain of the piece. Here is where I must resort to discussing the story’s final twists: That lifeguard meets and falls for Temple’s character, Humpty’s daughter. He’s a victim of fate: She think he’s smart, the clouds are about to burst, and he’s got a copy of Ernest Jones’ Hamlet and Oedipus to lend her. He’s a goner! “The heart has its own hieroglyphics,” he says, half-quoting Allen’s own public explanation (“The heart wants what it wants”) for his leaving his longtime partner Mia Farrow for her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn.
This enrages Ginny, of course, and the film’s bleak final moments find her enacting a vicious revenge and then getting shitfaced, alone, in her old stage dress, dreading a loveless lifetime of keeping the secret of what she’s done. Let’s break this down: 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?