2018 is a turbulent time to be a film fan, and as the less salubrious side of Hollywood rears its head once more, audiences are sometimes left with the unenviable challenge of attempting to separate the art from the artist.
Great strides are being made in the industry to redress longstanding imbalances, of course, and no right-thinking person would want misdemeanours to go unpunished or worse still, ignored. But these troubled waters are muddied further when one of the personalities involved has had a slew of historical allegations raised against them (with commendable support for the accusers, throughout the business), but so far accompanied – inexplicably – by no legal ramifications. While those who speak out on abuse should always be listened to, we also want to believe in due-process and rule of law. The awkwardness comes in the gap between, the doubt left in onlookers’ minds while things run their course, which is this case is slowly, publicly and messily for all involved.
What this boils down to is when the BBFC rating card for a Woody Allen film warned of “moderate sex”, your humble correspondent’s first reaction was ‘Well… what’s “moderate” going to mean, exactly?’.
But with The Unpleasantness out of the way (for now), Wonder Wheel is Allen’s annual outing to our cinemas, as he foregoes the quippy comedies of the past and brings us a broiling melodrama set in New York’s Coney Island amusement park during the 1950s. Beach lifeguard and aspiring writer Mickey (Justin Timberlake) narrates the story of the woman he’s having an affair with, Ginny (Kate Winslet). A world-weary waitress, Ginny lives on the park with fairground operator Humpty (Jim Belushi), and her young pyromaniac son Richie (Jack Gore) from a previous marriage. But when Humpty’s estranged daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) unexpectedly arrives on the run from her gangster husband, all of these uneasy threads are drawn together to make a fuse which only burns one way…
So maybe it’s indicative of the baggage which an audience will likely bring into the auditorium with them, but Wonder Wheel is similarly troubled. Never quite straying into hammy territory, this is effectively an all-American kitchen sink drama, feeling for all the world like a vintage stage production which has been ported directly onto the screen.
It’s nice to see Allen’s sepia-tinted, oak-panelled satires giving way to 50s kitsch and over-saturation, although this is arguably more cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s movie than its director’s. The fairground setting with its erratic weather gives the award winning lens-master carte blanche to change the lighting and colours mid-scene, often mid-monologue, morphing with the character’s emotions and intentions. Key exterior shots are framed against backdrops of tunnels formed by receding arches, blatantly symbolising echoes of the past and repetitive behaviour. Visually, this is an intriguing work.
(That said, there’s at least one scene where the moles on Kate Winslet’s face switch sides, indicating that the footage has been mirrored in post-production. Vittorio probably needs to have a word with editor Alisa Lepselter, because if the audience notices this upon their first viewing, it’s undoing his work and the movie’s not really doing its job.)
Back in the screenplay, Mickey’s fourth-wall-breaking commentary admits to seething melodrama and overblown characterisation from the outset, perhaps as an attempt to absolve Allen of blame for the slightly archaic structure. While Timberlake, Temple and Belushi all put in reliably solid turns (the latter in a role which appears to have been written for the late James Gandolfini, but still carried off with aplomb), the real screencraft comes from Kate Winslet as the connecting tissue between all other characters. Smouldering throughout the movie, Kate positively shines in a closing monologue which the camera awards directly to her, like a $10 performance in a $5 film.
Back in the writer’s chair, Allen’s scripted allusions to the characters of Hamlet and Oedipus feel deliberately eyebrow-raising given their respective daddy-issues, and there’s the thought that Wonder Wheel could be a pointed, cinematic confessional about responsibility, regret and bad decision-making. Alternatively of course, this could just be an autopilot pot-boiler masquerading as one. The exaggerated artifice in Timberlake’s sporadic narration and Winslet’s stagey performance would certainly suggest the latter.
Unfortunately, there’s just so much of this theatricality that the film has little emotional resonance during its run-time and even less once the house lights come up. While Allen’s relentless work-schedule means that, statistically, they can’t all be winners, this latest offering feels like the film-maker not really trying, carried along by his cast and crew, but to no satisfactory end.
And while we await a firm conclusion to the unfolding drama behind the scenes, there’s the thought that Wonder Wheel could well be the director’s final, faltering curtain-call. Time will tell of course, until which point all we can do is try our best to keep the art and the artist on separate shelves…