Wonder Wheel review

Before I can speak in any type of way regarding Woody Allen’s latest film Wonder Wheel, I must address the elephant in the room. Anyone with eyes and ears is fully aware (although likely woefully misinformed) of the allegations which have been made against him. At a time when we are seeing abuses of power in Hollywood finally being exposed and reckoned with, it’s impossible to write about the release of a Woody Allen film without contending with his allegedly sordid past. Unfortunately, I am THE wrong person to do this. First, let it be known that I am not just a huge fan of his work (well, most of it), but I am a student in the Woody Allen school of storytelling. In my work as a writer, comedian and cinephile there is simply no other artist as influential to my style as Woody Allen. To say that I have a personal connection to his art would be an understatement, and as such, any commentary I could offer regarding the legitimacy of any claims against him would undoubtedly suffer from biases that you don’t want to hear, and I don’t want to exhibit.

To combat this, I preemptively did some additional research into the allegations only to find that for every piece of information pointing one way, there’s an equally believable and valid piece pointing the other, which leaves me right where I started. I am just as unwilling to dismiss these allegations as I am to believe them, and whatever that makes me, so be it. I will not, however, come at you, dear reader, with judgments of my own. Wherever you stand on the matter, I hear you (and I invite you to discuss it with me if you’d like!). But whatever your feelings are, the best I can offer by way of producing a review worth reading is by invoking the old “separate art from artist” chestnut from this moment forward.

Admittedly, this is difficult to do in the realm of comedy, due to its often personal nature. Bill Cosby: Himself easily ranks amongst my most favorite pieces of comedy in existence, yet I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stomach another viewing. Louis CK was such a valuable comic-philosopher, whose frank and honest comedy taught me a lot about myself and my role in society. But this honesty did not carry over into his personal life, and his work is now indelibly tainted. I will forever have difficulty reckoning with that.

All of this amounts to what I like to call a “me problem.” To try and elicit sympathy for my reactionary heartbrokenness in the face of watching my heroes deservedly crumble would be an insult to actual victims, which is the furthest thing from my intentions. So if my wishy-washy approach to Woody Allen offends you, I own that, and I am sorry. If it’s any consolation, please be assured that the allegations against him are not something I take lightly, nor are they something I will ever be able to ignore when consuming his work. I will carry this baggage into tonight’s screening of Wonder Wheel, for that is part of my duty as an adult, a man, and a critic — whose job is not just to tell you about a film, but to explore its existence relative to society.

I will assume at this point that if you’ve made it this far it’s because you have done your own thinking and ultimately decided that you may be interested in Wonder Wheel. So you and me, we’ll talk after the movie…

Aaaaand here goes.

The first thing I noticed when Wonder Wheel began is also the last thing I thought about when it ended: The lighting. This is the second time that Allen has teamed up with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Dick Tracy, Apocalypse Now), the first being Cafe Society. It’s a smart move to use Storaro, whose inclination toward pop colors suits the setting – 1950s Coney Island – quite well. It’s easy to forget that the colors of the real world were just as bright as they are now when looking at photos from the era, and it’s amazing how jarring the color palette feels when initially placed against our preconceptions, but it’s not long before it no longer feels so heightened, short of the obvious nostalgia that Allen brings to all of his New York period pieces.

The lighting is also used to great dramatic effect. Oftentimes characters will be cast in red or blue depending on their mood which, being a Woody Allen picture, can fluctuate wildly within a single line. It seems a bit ham-handed at first, but once you fall into pace with the film it really works, mostly because more so than much of Allen’s work, Wonder Wheel feels like a play. It’s appropriate that it would be lit like one, and it’s Storaro’s masterful work which keeps the purposeful lighting from feeling ostentatious.

So what’s it about? Well, it’s about a bunch of neurotics living near Coney Island in the 1950s. Ginny (Kate Winslet), is a waitress at a clam restaurant. She’s married to a blowhard recovering(?) alcoholic, Humpty (Jim Belushi). Her child from a previous marriage has a habit of setting fire to things, and she doesn’t have the money to get him help. Humpty’s estranged daughter Carolina (Juno Temple), also from a previous marriage, shows up at Ginny’s home looking for help. You see, Carolina’s ex-husband is a mobster, and since Carolina squealed on him to the cops, she’s currently being hunted by a couple of goons.

All of this, of course, is narrated by Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a lifeguard with dreams of being the next Eugene O’Neill, with whom Ginny is having an affair.

Basically, it’s a Woody Allen “greatest hits” compilation.

If you’re into this sort of thing, which I am, you’ll find it quite entertaining, which I did. You will not find it to be even remotely close to doing anything new.

Kate Winslet, of course, absolutely CRUSHES it. She is one of the greats, and she is doing some of her best work here. The fact that she’s so incredible makes it that much more impressive to watch both Timberlake and Belushi hold their own in multiple long takes shared with her. And that’s another thing. I don’t know if Allen is trying something new, or if he’s just too old for the tedium of editing, but there are many decently technical long takes which play perfectly into the stage-like nature of the dialogue.

And that’s about it. It’s a pleasant little chunk of Allen’s brand sure to lightly please fans and maybe a few others. Outsiders will enjoy the performances (Winslet really is excellent here), but it’s pretty missable.

Anyway, here’s a fun thing to do:

I said maybeeeeeeee
Kate Winslet’s gonna go a bit crazzaaaay
Cuz after eeeeeeeeeeeeeeel
You’re my Wonder Wheeeeeeeel

Author: Dan Scully

Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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