Review: “Wonder Wheel”

** This review was written and submitted to the Tribune News Service, but I haven’t been able to find a link to a paper that’s picked it up. **

Is it possible to separate the art from the artist? That question has unfortunately become an annual tradition when it comes to Woody Allen. Since financiers and stars keep flocking to his projects, every year, critics and audiences alike must flagellate ourselves over whether or not it’s okay to like Woody Allen movies, given the sexual assault accusations that have plagued him since the early ‘90s, and his complicated romantic relationships (he’s married to the adopted daughter of his ex-wife).

It would be a whole lot easier to like Woody Allen movies if it wasn’t also an annual tradition for Allen to exorcise his obvious sexual neuroses about women on screen, to increasingly diminishing returns. Woody, can you make a war picture or something?

His latest film, “Wonder Wheel,” is of the same sub-category as his lauded “Blue Jasmine,” which could be called, “older women are scary.” Allen’s clearly fascinated by the complexities of feminine aging, in relationship to men, younger women, and life’s purpose, but his perspective on this process is decidedly unsympathetic. These roles may be juicy (Cate Blanchett earned a well-deserved Oscar for unraveling so well), but one can’t ignore the disdain for these characters that pervades his films.

In this 50s-era Coney Island fantasy, Kate Winslet plays Ginny, a failed actress who’s found herself waiting tables at a clam house, living in a rickety apartment above the boardwalk with her merry-go-round operator husband, Humpty (Jim Belushi), and her young pyromaniac son (Jack Gore). Her reprieve from this mundane life is an affair with the local lifeguard and aspiring playwright Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a spit-shined hunk who serves as our earnest narrator.

Their lives are turned topsy-turvy with the arrival of Humpty’s prodigal daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), a curvy gangster’s moll on the run from her criminal husband, and this newer, younger model draws all the male attention away from Ginny. Humpty starts to pour all of his money and affection into his daughter, hoping to get her on the right track, while Mickey can’t help his attraction to her, despite his attempts to placate an increasingly hysterical Ginny.

“Wonder Wheel” is a self-consciously theatrical film, announced up front as narrator Mickey declares a penchant for melodrama and larger-than-life characters. The sets seem as if on stage, as characters enter and deliver dramatic monologues. It feels like budget Tennesee Williams mashed up with a bad Neil Simon parody. Perhaps this is the first draft of one of Mickey’s plays, and if so, he should stick to lifeguarding.

Allen and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro create a lush, colorful, surreal look for the film. The lighting choices are truly bizarre, with colored gels changing rapidly within shots, morphing from orange to blue in a matter of seconds. Ostensibly, it reflects the neon lights of Coney Island, but it’s beyond distracting while you wonder—well, what’s the point?

It’s hard not to wonder about the point of it all throughout “Wonder Wheel.” As we watch Allen worry and nitpick over the way women fret over aging, painting Ginny as pathetic, jealous, insecure, and clownish, it’s dull, unoriginal, and offensive. Frankly, we’ve have enough Woody Allen takes on this subject. Here’s hoping those financiers can find another filmmaker with a different, more refreshing perspective to support in the future.

2 out of 4 stars

‘WONDER WHEEL’

Cast: Kate Winslet, Jim Belushi, Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple

Directed by Woody Allen

Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes

Rated PG-13 for thematic content including some sexuality, language and smoking.

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