These days, a critic approaches a new film by Woody Allen with trepidation – even dread. Will one be permitted to review the art, or will the filmmaker himself once again force reviewers to consider his life?
From his start in stand-up through his many on-screen appearances as a comic alter ego, Allen has always flirted with autobiography in his work, teasing an audience with the notion that at least some of this might be true. And if he has disappeared from the cast of characters in his recent films, the parallels between his scripts and his own domestic dramas have now become downright uncomfortable. In 2016, Café Society featured a clandestine affair between a middle-aged movie mogul and the young secretary who eventually becomes his wife. Now Wonder Wheel offers us the spectacle of a married woman, a former actress, no less, fighting her stepdaughter for the same man.
Say we were to stop squirming in our seats at the possibility that the increasingly deranged Ginny (Kate Winslet) is an unflattering portrait of Allen's ex-partner Mia Farrow, and just view the film as though we didn't know the whole sordid history of the director's affair and marriage with Farrow's adopted daughter. What we would have is one of Allen's occasional and ill-considered attempts to forgo comedy in his dramas. Although Wonder Wheel begins with a few of the witty ruptures of the fourth wall that have often enlivened Allen's work, it soon descends into a bleak melodrama that is little more than warmed-over Tennessee Williams.
Set on Coney Island in the 1950s, the action begins with the film's occasional narrator, a lifeguard named Mickey (Justin Timberlake), letting us know that he's a poet and aspiring writer and we should expect melodrama and larger-than-life characters. Enter Carolina (Juno Temple), a beautiful blonde who has ditched her mobster husband and is now fleeing his goons. She walks into the action directly underneath the sign illuminating the midway Ferris wheel: Wonder Wheel, it says in twinkling letters above her head. Well, we have been warned, but it hardly forgives what follows.
Carolina seeks refuge with her father Humpty (Jim Belushi), who operates the merry-go-round, and his put-upon wife Ginny, a failed actress now waiting tables in a clam shack. Tired of both poverty and Humpty, Ginny begins a summertime fling with Mickey the lifeguard, and it's all going swimmingly until he spies Carolina. Soon the jealous Ginny is battling her step-daughter for Mickey's attention – and oh, and by the way, the unfaithful Ginny often accuses her husband of being unnaturally obsessed with his own daughter.
Tolstoy and Flaubert turned adulterous women into tragic heroines; Allen turns his into a shrew. The prospect of losing Mickey makes Ginny increasingly desperate and Wonder Wheel begins to self-consciously ape the claustrophobic American dramas of the period. Just in case you didn't get that, Mickey gives Ginny a copy of Eugene O'Neill's plays, but in her crazed final scene it is Williams's Blanche DuBois that she is channelling.
Timberlake, Belushi and Temple all give their characters comic energy – the poetic lifeguard is boundlessly charming; the prosaic merry-go-round operator is big and bombastic; his daughter is ditzy – but as the action grows darker, the actors lose their way, uncertain how seriously they are supposed to take the drama they are enacting.
Can Winslet save the day for Allen? She needs to raise the floundering Ginny to the level of tragedy if she is to maintain an audience's sympathy for an increasingly unattractive character. She doesn't and Ginny becomes more and more grating, and then finally pathetic. A vindictive middle-aged actress desperately clinging to a man she's losing to a younger woman? Yes, it's tempting to categorize this odd movie as revenge but, whatever its director's motivations, a work so contemptuous of its own heroine is always going to border on the offensive.
Wonder Wheel opens Dec. 8 in Toronto and Vancouver before expanding to other Canadian cities Dec. 15.