Alright, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: being a Woody Allen fan is not very fashionable at the moment. This of course stems from the accusation of child abuse that occurred in the early 90s, which was litigated and dismissed at the time but which suddenly came back into the conversation thanks in part to a rather vigorous campaign on the part of the Farrow family starting in late 2013 and which has been brought back into the conversation in the wake of the #MeToo campaign despite there being no new allegations. Frankly Allen’s past has never had much bearing on my interest in his movies, partly because I’m decidedly on Team “Separate Art From Artist” but also because the case against him is far from ironclad and there seems to be no indication that he’s some sort of serial offender. Given a choice I’d be happy to avoid talking about all of this altogether but in recent times he has been using his filmmaking to comment on his past controversies, and specifically his relationship to Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, often in slightly coded ways. His last film, Café Society, ended with someone contemplating an affair with someone who would be his aunt-in-law and his 2014 movie Magic in the Moonlight ended with a man much the senior of a younger woman deciding to go through with a relationship with her despite all logical reason not because the heart wants what it wants. I don’t have a problem with Allen exploring his controversies on scree but I’m honestly surprised more people didn’t pick up on these themes until now but they’re certainly picking up on similar themes in his newest film Wonder Wheel.
The film is set in the 1950s in and around the famous Coney Island back when it was still a pretty relevant attraction. At its center is a woman named Ginny Rannell (Kat Winslet) a waitress at a Coney Island clam bar who’s married to a carousel operator named Humpty Rannell (Jim Belushi) and who lives in an apartment right in the middle of the island above a loud shooting range but with a view of the titular Ferris wheel. This is a second marriage for both Ginny and Humpty, and Ginny has a twelve year old son from her previous marriage who is kind of disturbed, has a compulsion to start fires, and does not get along at all with his hardass step-father. At a certain point Ginny started having an affair with a lifeguard/aspiring philosopher named Mickey (Justin Timberlake), who actually narrates most of the film. Things are really set off when Humpty’s twenty-something year old daughter from his previous marriage, Carolina (Juno Temple), turns up on their doorstep desperate for a place to stay. Carolina had apparently run off and married a gangster when she was young, something her father has not forgiven her for, and after a while with this unsavory person she found herself in a situation where she appeared to be snitching on him and because of this she’s on the run from hitmen. Eventually they kind of make the situation work, at least until Carolina runs into Mickey and a strange love triangle commences.
So, this is a movie where a guy starts out sleeping with a 40-some year old woman and ends up falling in love with her 20-some year old step daughter… gee, I wonder what attracted Woody Allen to that scenario. Truth be told I’m not one hundred percent sure Allen intended for this to be a metaphor for his own tabloid scandal some twenty years ago. That whole story is very much on the forefront of cultural commentators these days but I don’t think it as much as the forefront of his own mind as a lot of people might think it would be. That said, as an outside observer it’s pretty hard to not see the movie that way and he must have been aware of the similarities on some level even if only sub-consciously. If it was intentional it’s a little disingenuous as there are clear differences between the two scenarios most notably the fact that the man in this situation is Justin Timberlake, a guy who is about twenty years younger than Woody Allen was when he started his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn and Juno Temple is about ten years older than Previn was. What’s more the step daughter in in Wonder Wheel is one hundred percent absent from the life of the Timberlake character before he falls for her and there’s zero question as to whether he played any kind of parental role in her life. Of course the other little wrinkle to this interpretation is that the love triangle at its center does not exactly end well, and if Allen does mean for it to be any kind of allegory it does not necessarily speak well of his own actions.
Truth be told, all of that doesn’t really matter, as the bigger problems with the movie are largely unrelated. The problem really isn’t the story so much as the writing. The movie is very talky, which I suppose could be said about most Woody Allen movies but the dialogue is particularly heightened here. I think Allen is very intentionally trying to make this seem like a stage play with the way most scenes only involve two or three people and who they’re pretty willing to tell rather that show at certain points. The exposition here is really lazy, characters just monologue off their entire backstories for the first third of the movie and they seem to verbalize a lot of what they’re thinking and feeling rather than letting the audience intuit it. In other, more comedic Woody Allen movies this wouldn’t have been as conspicuous but this movie is pretty serious and somber, there aren’t really laughs to distract from that kind of thing. There’s also a certain theatricality to the performances here, particularly from Winslet, who manages to really make a lot of this material work better than it might have. Juno Temple is also pretty good here but the male actors don’t fare as well. Jim Belushi, who doesn’t have the same background in dramatic theater that Winslet does generally fares worse with this material but it’s Timberlake who is particularly miscast. I get why the idea of casting Timberlake might have made some sense; he’s about the right age, he has the look of a life guard, and he’s also attractive enough to make sense as the love interest for two different women, but his character is supposed to be this sensitive intellectual and that is very decidedly something Timberlake cannot pull off.
If nothing else Wonder Wheel certainly looks better than pretty much anything else Woody Allen has ever made. The film, like his last film Café Society, is the product of a special deal he signed with Amazon Studios which has given him much larger budgets to work with than he’s used to. This one cost about $25 million to make, which isn’t a huge budget in the grand scheme of things but is huge for him. The dude has only made three movies since the 70s that have grossed more than that in theaters. You can certainly see the budget on the screen. There’s a ton of period detail and Coney Island is recreated effectively and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro beautifully captures the light of the wonder wheel shining into the characters’ apartment. I do however wonder if this huge budget is part of the problem though, like Allen knew this kind of financing was not going to last so he pulled the one script set in 1950s Coney Island out of his files and rushed it into production before his last opportunity to make something this expensive went away. Obviously the guy has been accused of using first drafts before, and I’ve usually felt that was unwarranted but I think it’s true with this one. That’s a shame because all told I really wanted this thing to be great and to prove Allen’s doubters wrong, but it just isn’t.