Like many others, I’m reexamining my relationship with Woody Allen. Mostly, I’ve been able to separate his art from his somewhat shady-looking life, but that’s been harder lately, both because the shadow has been growing larger and because the art itself has drawn too much attention to his deficits.
Aside from a few convoluted references, there’s really nothing about age-inappropriate relationships in Wonder Wheel. The title comes from a giant Ferris wheel at Coney Island, once a mecca of big-city boardwalk glamour, now going seedy in the early ’50s. (Allen makes soundtrack concessions to pop culture of that period, but a recurrent Mills Brothers number from 20 years earlier declares his retro preference.) As happened with last year’s Café Society, with similar themes, the real star is the cinematography by Vittorio Storaro, the Bernardo Bertolucci veteran here making a leap into boldly saturated digital colours.
The beach and boardwalk scenes pop, but the main action is decidedly stagey. Much of it happens in a kind of cabin in the sky behind the titular wheel. The set is arresting, but also the kind of thing you used to see in live-TV plays in that era. The way Ginny (Kate Winslet), a failed actress now working in a clam house, and her lunkheaded husband, Humpty (Jim Belushi), go at each other—she coulda been somebody and he just wants a drink—resembles The Honeymooners as reimagined by Tennessee Williams.
If there’s an Art Carney in this scenario, it’s not Ed Norton, unfortunately, but Justin Timberlake, who tries to breathe some youthful life into the half-written part of Mickey, an aspiring playwright and summer lifeguard. He begins the film by narrating it, but this device is dropped, as the would-be artiste falls first for Ginny and then for Humpty’s grown daughter (Juno Temple), on the run from her gangster husband.
Why this marked woman would take a high-visibility job at Ginny’s clam joint is one of many plot threads that don’t seem thought-through. All these faux-working-class characters pretty much degenerate into the most stereotyped versions of themselves by the end of the laugh-free tale. If anything, Allen’s direction is too unobtrusive, allowing Winslet to turn in the kind of ham-fisted performance that actors later regret. Ultimately, there’s little to validate attacks on or defences of Allen’s private character. But the careless way he’s built his story goes to a kind of intellectual corruption; Wonder Wheel feels like it was made by someone who doesn’t know real people—only the kind he has seen in movies.