Film Review: Wonder Wheel

9 March 18 words: Ashley Carter

Woody Allen's first film of the #MeToo era has been universally panned by critics, but whether that's a result of the director's reputation or the quality of the film itself is a matter of debate...

Director: Woody Allen

Starring: Kate Winslet, Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple

Running time: 101 mins

Woody Allen’s 49th film takes the director back to where it all began, the decaying funfair of 1950s Coney Island in which he spent his summers as a child. Narrated by lifeguard Mickey (Justin Timberlake), it’s the story of an aging waitress haunted by the memory of an acting career that never was, her beleaguered, carousel-operator husband and the return of his daughter from a previous marriage that propels their lives into chaos.  

Plagued by migraines and a deep-rooted sense of unfulfillment, neurotic waitress Ginny (Kate Winslet) stumbles into an affair with handsome, well-read lifeguard Mickey (Timberlake), a man of equal charm and pretention, armed with the self-assurance that he will one day be one of the great playwrights. Ginny’s husband, Humpty, a middle-aged, short-tempered recovering alcoholic, is frustrated by his wife’s refusal to accept her lot and simply plough on through life, and exasperated by the molly-coddling of her pyromaniac son. The arrival of Carolina, Humpty’s estranged daughter, further fuels Ginny’s unease with life, as her husband’s attention is taken away from the things she feels are important in life, and returned to the girl who ran away to marry a local gangster against his will. As the goons sent by Carolina’s husband close in on discovering her whereabouts, Ginny is faced with a moral dilemma that will decide the fate of both Carolina and her family’s future.

If Stardust Memories was his homage to Fellini, and Husbands and Wives his tribute to Bergman, this is doubtlessly Allen’s Eugene O’Neill film, a fact that is explicitly referenced on several occasions. But despite Wonder Wheel being one of Allen’s better dramatic films of the last 15 years, the critical response has treated it more as a Long Day’s Journey Into Shite (I’m really sorry).

Few films have garnered as much nervous anticipation as this, Allen’s first release of the #MeToo era. The reassessment of historical and current sexual assaults committed by figures in the film industry has naturally re-opened the discussion about the abuse allegations that have followed the director for years. Whether or not those allegations are true, he did marry the adopted daughter of his then girlfriend, Mia Farrow. With this information in mind, its fascinating to view Wonder Wheel, a film clearly set in the time and location of Allen’s childhood, potentially delve further into autobiographical territory, as lifeguard Mickey begins an affair with both Ginny and her newly adopted daughter Carolina. When the distinction between an artist and their work is as blurred as it is in the current era of outrage, you can’t help but wonder as a viewer, just what would compel Allen to tread such weirdly familiar ground. To some, Allen is a predator flaunting his lack of remorse, to others, he represents an artist unwilling to curtail his vision to the external influences of the press and public.

Maybe critics genuinely didn’t like it, or maybe, in the current climate, its impossible to favorably review anything that Woody Allen puts out

But it does open a new chapter on an interesting debate, that of where you should draw the line between an artist and their art. It feels that, more than ever, society is unable to consume the output of creative people with whom they disagree with morally, or who have committed a sexual offence. Does Bill Cosby’s comedy become less funny once you become aware of the accusations leveled against him?  Or does Louis CK’s, once you discover that he masturbated in front of women? Or can you, like we seem able to with the likes of the Nazi-Germany era films of Leni Riefenstahl, appreciate the artistic importance of a person’s work without the interference of a wider context of their character or motivations?

By the way Wonder Wheel has been critically received, that seems unlikely. Whilst it might veer toward melodrama, and both Jim Belushi and Justin Timberblake feel horribly out of their depth, it is a film that is nowhere near as bad as critics would have you believe. The use of light in the cinematography of Vittorio Storaro, the double-Oscar winning Apocalypse Now director of photography who previously worked with Allen on Café Society, is stunning throughout, turning what could feel like a static piece of theatre-on-film into a beautifully textured display of mood and colour. Kate Winslet, who has since expressed her “bitter regret” for working with Allen, gives her best performance of recent years, and is joined by the increasingly impressive Juno Temple.

You get the feeling that Wonder Wheel could never have been anything other than the Woody Allen film that came out at the wrong time, surrounded by controversy that has little to do with its merit as a piece of cinema. Maybe critics genuinely didn’t like it, or maybe, in the current climate, its impossible to favorably review anything that Woody Allen puts out. I don’t really know what my opinion is on that.  What’s yours?  But in the context of the current cinematic output, Wonder Wheel is an interesting and visually beautiful film that features some great performances, and in the hit-and-miss career of Woody Allen, comfortably belongs amongst his better films.

Did you know? Many of the costumes worn by the extras were original era garments gathered by costume designer Suzy Benzinger.


Wonder Wheel is released on Friday 9th March

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