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Film Review: Surprise! Woody Allen Tortures Leading Lady in “Wonder Wheel”

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | December 15th, 2017

Film poster: “Wonder Wheel”

Wonder Wheel (Woody Allen, 2017) 2 out of 4 stars.

I long ago abandoned Woody Allen as a cinematic idol, beginning with the revelations of his affair with Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his former partner, Mia Farrow. The fact that he then married her makes it no better. And then there are allegations that he sexually abused his daughter Dylan. Really, one might ask, why do we bother continuing to watch his films? Given today’s #MeToo revelations, perhaps it’s time to let Allen go, for good, whatever the quality of his work. I’ll say this for his latest movie, Wonder Wheel, however: it is far superior to the previous one, Café Society, which was a bland recycling of every Allen trope ever used. Still, if one has reservations – or more – about the man, himself, then there is no need to challenge those reservations with a trip to the theater. “Better than last time” is hardly a ringing endorsement.

A fully committed Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs) stars as Ginny, a waitress in 1950s Coney Island with fond memories of her past life as an actress. For various reasons, explained in the film, her career evaporated, leaving her with a young, troubled son and few prospects. So, she married Humpty, a lout of a man who is still the best she could do, and who only turns violent when drunk. Perfectly incarnated by Jim Belushi (Katie Says Goodbye), Humpty loves Ginny in his own fashion, but when his daughter-from-another-marriage Carolina – played by Juno Temple (Killer Joe), also quite good – shows up, that love is tested by Ginny’s subsequent jealousy. Their rivalry is not only about Humpty, but also Mickey, the local lifeguard – played by a fine Justin Timberlake (The Social Network) – who also narrates the movie. Younger than Ginny, he sees her as a nice summer fling, while she sees him as her lifeline (pun intended) to a better future. So does Carolina, who quickly catches his eye, too. The ménage à quatre is further complicated by the arrival of gangsters from Carolina’s ex-husband’s entourage. What we have is a drama at once intimate and intricately plotted.

Kate Winslet in “Wonder Wheel” ©Amazon Studios

So far, so good. The whole affair is beautifully photographed by the great Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (The Last Emperor), who makes the otherwise stagey apartment location (behind Coney Island’s famed Wonder Wheel) seem almost cinematic. Still, there’s something profoundly unpleasant about watching Ginny’s descent into desperation, reminiscent of Blue Jasmine (where a different Cate was similarly tortured), at the hands of a man who has such a fraught history with the real-life women of his personal narrative. When Mickey turns his eye from the older Ginny to the younger Carolina, we flash back not only to works like Manhattan (where Allen dithered between a woman his own age and a 17-year-old, which I can no longer watch), but to Mia and Soon-Yi. Or, at least, I do. How you feel about it all will determine your own reaction. It seems a shame to waste these fine performances, though. Perhaps they can be just as good for other, less problematic, directors.

Justin Timberlake in “Wonder Wheel” ©Amazon Studios

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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