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Woody Allen’s last feature, Café Society, was an amiably forgettable assembly of recycled nostalgia, redeemed by a luminous performance from Kristen Stewart. His new film, Wonder Wheel, rummages in the more recent archives, repackaging elements of one of the prolific writer-director’s most acclaimed late-period works, Blue Jasmine. While theatrical references are batted about to Chekhov, Shakespeare, O’Neill and the Greeks, this visually luscious, 1950s-set melodrama is mostly ersatz Tennessee Williams, this time around with Kate Winslet as the tragic Blanche DuBois stand-in. Her boldly unfettered performance keeps you watching, even if underlying sourness, tonal uncertainty and a key casting misstep diminish the effectiveness of this Amazon Studios release, likely cramping its box office.
The latest recruit to play Allen’s onscreen alter ego — and the film’s most glaring weakness — is Justin Timberlake, starring as Mickey Rubin. An NYU student pursuing a Master’s in European theater, he’s working a summer job as a Coney Island lifeguard. “As a poet, I use symbols, and as a budding dramatist, I relish melodrama and larger-than-life characters,” Mickey tells us in direct-address opening narration.
Timberlake looks right at home in the period swim trunks. But he struggles to convince in the role of the aspiring artist, hungry to explore the human condition and willing to dive into a relationship because it “fits into the romantic narrative of the writer’s life.” As an actor, Timberlake has been put to good use in films like The Social Network and Inside Llewyn Davis. But he’s never really shown great range, and his limitations here make Allen’s signature patter sound strained and Mickey seem dim and superficial.
That, in turn, lends an unsavory taste of auteur cruelty to the desperation with which Winslet’s Ginny hurls herself at him as the lifeline to pull her out of “this whole honky-tonk fairyland.” Mickey represents something of a departure for Allen in that for once he’s a younger man susceptible to the passions of an older woman. But when Mickey’s feelings for Ginny are instantly obscured by his intoxication with her 26-year-old stepdaughter, it’s as inevitable as it is creepy. Is the director deliberately goading his audience or merely indifferent to any uncomfortable parallels with his personal history? Impossible to say.
As in Café Society, Allen’s most valuable collaborators, alongside his female lead, are cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and production designer Santo Loquasto. The dazzling opening panorama of the jam-packed beach at Coney Island, with the amusement-park attractions in the background, evokes countless classic photographs of the Brooklyn leisure destination in its heyday, before seediness had fully taken hold. Not since Francis Ford Coppola’s One From the Heart has Storaro’s paintbox been richer; the lustrous colors are eye-popping.
Loquasto’s boardwalk sets and Suzy Benzinger’s costumes are like stage creations, reveling in the artifice of the imagination. Much of the action unfolds inside an apartment that used to house a freak show, where Ginny now lives with her carousel-operator husband Humpty (Jim Belushi) and her preteen son from her first marriage, Richie (Jack Gore). Located right opposite the big wheel that gives the film its title, the shabby dwelling is flooded by Storaro with a honeyed glow in the daylight scenes, and with washes of neon reds and blues at night. Notably, at the end, when delusional hopes crumble, the theatrical lights are extinguished to usher in cold reality.
Ginny was an actress in her younger years, and although she endures frequent migraines while waiting tables at a clam-house, the fantasist part of her survives. “There’s more to me than this,” she tells Mickey. “I’m just playing the thankless role of the waitress.” Pretending is tough in her loveless marriage to recovering alcoholic Humpty, broadly but amusingly played by Belushi as a volatile Ernest Borgnine-type in a grubby white undershirt, always one crisis away from falling off the wagon. It’s even tougher when his estranged daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) shows up out of the blue, fleeing from her mobster husband after she squealed to the FBI. (In what must surely be a nod to The Sopranos, series veterans Tony Sirico and Steven J. Schirripa turn up as the goons on Carolina’s tail.)
Allen piles on Ginny’s miseries to an almost sadistic degree, even making young Richie a serial pyromaniac in a subplot that serves no concrete purpose beyond being one of those poetic symbols Mickey talks about. “A moody kid like his moody mother” is how Humpty describes Richie. Yet Winslet dignifies Ginny’s pathos with raw feeling, even as she tortures herself over a long-ago infidelity that ended her first marriage on a murky note. When Mickey spots her walking alone on the beach as a storm is closing in, he’s immediately attracted to her aura of sorrow and mystery, while her vulnerability makes her a sucker for his seductive attentions.
Although the look here is golden-hued Radio Days-style remembrance, and the family’s living situation just a minor variation on that of Allen’s Annie Hall surrogate, Alvy Singer, who grew up under a rollercoaster, there’s not much that feels in any way personal. The movie shares elements with Allen’s moral fables about the pull between choice and fate, as well as his gangster comedies. (The jaunty musical motif heard throughout is the Mills Brothers’ “Coney Island Washboard.”) But laughs are few, and the plotting generally is lazy and mechanical, with almost everything about Ginny’s downward spiral telegraphed along the way. Whenever a former actress starts caressing her old stage costumes and prop jewelry, it’s a safe bet she’s going to be wearing them once she starts unraveling.
As compelling as Winslet is, we’ve seen this arc too recently, when Cate Blanchett’s title character surrendered her grip on reality in Blue Jasmine. But that film, while a similarly theatrical construct, acquired contemporary teeth and character complexity through its post-economic crash setting, and the ambiguities swirling around Jasmine’s knowledge of her husband’s crimes — even if she had worked hard at remaining oblivious. Ginny is simply a neurotic sad sack who has made a bunch of bad decisions, which keep getting worse as her fragile hope of rescue disintegrates. The movie doesn’t exactly treat her well, which keeps Winslet’s gutsy performance from having the emotional impact it deserves.
Mickey would probably register as a lightweight phony even with a more persuasive actor. But Carolina fares marginally better, at least for a while. Temple never overdoes the naive kewpie-doll thing, giving the character a resilient sweetness that contrasts with the trapped, defeated qualities etched across Ginny’s face. And there are lovely, melancholy notes in the younger woman’s admission that she married a gangster because of her yearning to take a bigger bite out of the world. In that brief moment, Ginny seems to connect to her.
However, the disappointments of life and romance, which have been grist for memorable films by Allen from Annie Hall through Vicky Cristina Barcelona, here generate only fabricated poignancy. The warming affection that the director has bestowed on so many of his best characters is largely missing. In fact, he seems barely engaged.
Production companies: Perdido, Amazon Studios, Gravier Productions
Distributor: Amazon Studios
Cast: Kate Winslet, Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple, Jim Belushi, Jack Gore, Max Casella, David Krumholtz, Tony Sirico, Steven J. Schirripa
Director-screenwriter: Woody Allen
Producers: Letty Aronson, Erika Aronson, Edward Wilson
Executive producers: Ronald L. Chez, Adam B. Stern, Mark Attanasio
Director of photography: Vittorio Storaro
Production designer: Santo Loquasto
Costume designer: Suzy Benzinger
Editor: Aline Lepselter
Casting: Patricia DiCerto
Venue: New York Film Festival (Closing Night)
Rated PG-13, 101 minutes