Even at his airiest, Woody Allen’s late period output is full of tragedy. If a film is sun-drenched and colored in clay like Vicky Cristina Barcelona, or submerged in darkness like Cassandra’s Dream—if one is about wish fulfillment in the streets of Paris, Rome or London, it’s sad and full of regret and self-loathing.
This quality, this inwardly directed hate, makes Allen’s more recent films worth anyone’s time, whether it’s because of five minutes (To Rome with Love, Magic in the Moonlight) or an entire running time (Match Point, Blue Jasmine). Because, as Allen is often accused of being—other than a garbage person—he’s a workmanlike artist who’s been treading the same ground, in the same heavily affected, regressive way, for the last four-ish decades, to varying degrees of payoff.
Last year’s Cafe Society was something of an industry satire, light on the jabs at the insular world of Hollywood, but quick with surprisingly sharp barbs toward himself, especially his well-worn archetypal reputation as a nebbish, this time played by Jesse Eisenberg. If that film was a comedy (in his alternating modes), Allen’s latest, Wonder Wheel, is a drama. Rather: a draaaaamaaa. We watch Justin Timberlake stiffly talk about Eugene O’Neill and the human condition and Kate Winslet have loud migraines. It’s Allen trying to translate his self-loathing to the stage. Sort of.
Although he’s has long denied much, of any, autobiographical elements to his films, Allen’s past decade of work seems more thinly veiled than ever. In the ivory-inhabited Coney Island of his 1950s, a lifeguard named Mickey (Timberlake) mythologizes his affair with an older woman in an unhappy marriage, Ginny (Winslet), and as his feelings for her fade, he sets his eyes on the daughter of her alcoholic husband (Jim Belushi), Carolina (Juno Temple). Let’s clarify: Mickey, a self-anointed dramatist, lover of “symbols” and “metaphors”—or so he tells us looking directly into the camera at the beginning of the film—falls for the woman who is not quite the daughter of the woman with whom he he is currently. Hm.
Wonder Wheel becomes one of the purest distillations of that scene from Annie Hall where Alvy stages a play about his breakup with Annie, looking to the screen and saying, “You know how you’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it’s real difficult in life?” The film is wrecked with guilt on all sides, even in its attempt to romanticize Mickey’s situation. The character is (intentionally or otherwise) derailed by how transparently scummy he is. His attempts to woo Carolina while still involved with Ginny seem overwrought, mean and oblivious, which may partially have to do with the text and partially to do with Timberlake’s inability to find a way to make Allen’s affected dialogue work for him. He’s graceless, his West Village apartment and braggadocio around “traveling the world” and going to NYU and his aspirations of becoming a great playwright making him all the more insufferable, the Timberlake charm no match for the sleaze of the character. Still, his amateurish nature kind of works for the film, making him seem as much of a fuckboy as Winslet’s Ginny is written to be a neurotic mess.
Ginny, like Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine before her, is plagued by migraines and prone to histrionics, but because Allen’s brand of drama embodied by women now seems so reductive, even misogynistic, it’s hard to watch Winslet muster through this. It’s hard, too, to follow Allen’s alliances and perspective relentlessly swinging back and forth. He’s either with Mickey, or with Ginny, who is paranoid, hurt and heartbroken, her life resigned to waiting tables at a dump of a clam restaurant on the pier, any dreams of becoming an actress crushed by waves of reality. Allen doesn’t think much of the working class, frequently portrayed as caricaturish goons, drunks and slobs, even in his most sympathetic of films, like The Purple Rose of Cairo. Winslet, at least, doesn’t necessarily seem comfortable in Allen’s version of a lower income world. Her fits of rage and anxiety appear channeled less through her own interpretation of those symptoms and feelings and more through Allen’s. Winslet is doing an impression of Cate Blanchett doing an impression of Mia Farrow in September.
Why are Allen’s worlds ruled, above all, by paranoia? Even in an artifice like his Coney Island, stagily directed so that Vittorio Stotaro’s gorgeous cinematography takes on a (questionably) meaningful theatrical quality, the lights of the amusement rides casting long shadows on their lives, Winslet is always looking around for someone to betray her or to take something away. Is this the neurotic’s plight, always wondering when the other shoe will drop? Mickey may speak of O’Neill’s plays with the knowledge of someone who has glanced at his Wikipedia page and added a few dime-worthy words, but other than a self-lacerating quality, Allen’s films haven’t embodied any of the ideas his characters ramble on and on about.
So what about the human condition? Although Wonder Wheel may feel like it’s supposed to be some sort of confessional art, an apology and an apologia for his past sins—justifying and indicting himself—Woody Allen keeps letting himself off the hook.
Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
Starring: Kate Winslet, Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple, Jim Belushi
Release Date: December 1, 2017