(IMAGE: Juno Temple in Woody Allen’s WONDER WHEEL. CREDIT: Jessica Miglio /​Amazon Studios.)

Amazon Studios. 2017. Drama. 101 minutes.

RATING: 4 angels

To say that Woody Allen’s body of work is more inter­est­ing than the indi­vid­ual films is not to dimin­ish the pic­tures them­selves – at least a half-​dozen are rou­tine­ly ranked among the great­est American movies ever made – but rather under­score the impor­tance of read­ing the films as an exten­sion of the man him­self. Since Annie Hall in 1977, Allen has aver­aged a movie a year (none in 1981, two in 1987), an out­put and pace that is with­out prece­dent among major American film­mak­ers, liv­ing or deceased. For more than two gen­er­a­tions, the annu­al arrival of a Woody Allen movie has been as pre­dictable – and often as antic­i­pat­ed – as Christmas and New Year’s. For bet­ter or worse – and every­thing in between – audi­ences have watched the soon-​to-​be-​82-​year-​old film­mak­er share his life and bare his soul on-​screen. He has made us laugh and cry, squirm and reel, reflect and project as the chap­ters of his life inter­sect­ed with ours through the shared medi­um of cin­e­ma. His neu­roses, obses­sions, pas­sions, pains, joys and regrets are as famil­iar to us as our own. When he hasn’t played him­self, he has cast sur­ro­gates to reveal even deep­er aspects of him­self. He has omi­nous­ly fore­shad­owed future moments in his life and mourn­ful­ly looked back on oth­ers, fre­quent­ly doing so oppo­site his real-​life off-​screen lead­ing ladies. Put sim­ply, the more one under­stands Woody Allen, the more acute­ly one is able to appre­ci­ate his work – and vice ver­sa. Which brings us to Wonder Wheel, Allen’s 47th fea­ture film in 51 years. At face val­ue, it seems a per­fect­ly ser­vice­able effort – engag­ing and enjoy­able – but not espe­cial­ly remark­able giv­en the tal­ent involved. Such attempts to read Wonder Wheel as a stand-​alone film, how­ev­er, risk entire­ly miss­ing its sig­nif­i­cance as a crit­i­cal turn­ing point in Allen’s oeu­vre, for Wonder Wheel is indis­putably one of Woody Allen’s most per­son­al and intro­spec­tive works – a cru­cial key to unlock­ing a fuller appre­ci­a­tion of both Allen the man and Allen the artist.

Readers are hence­forth warned – spoil­ers will ensue. The final para­graph of this review will detail broad­er rea­sons for see­ing – or avoid­ing – Wonder Wheel with­out reveal­ing cru­cial plot points. Those who wish to see the film unspoiled should cease read­ing now.

Named for the icon­ic Coney Island Ferris wheel that first began dom­i­nat­ing the famed locale in 1920, Wonder Wheel announces itself as a fair­ly arche­typ­al Woody Allen nos­tal­gia exer­cise on the order of Radio Days or The Purple Rose of Cairo. Against a roman­ti­cized vision of 50s era Coney Island, audi­ences are intro­duced to their nar­ra­tor – NYU stu­dent, aspir­ing writer, part-​time life­guard and full-​time Allen sur­ro­gate Mickey Rubin (Justin Timberlake). A doe-​eyed, honey-​tongued ide­al­ist who fore­warns view­ers that his nar­ra­tion will be clas­si­cal­ly unre­li­able, Mickey pro­ceeds to spin the sad tale of young Carolina (Juno Temple), the wife of a mob­ster who, hav­ing run afoul of her husband’s asso­ciates, flees home to Coney Island in hopes of rec­on­cil­ing with her estranged wid­ow­er father, Humpty (Jim Belushi), the amuse­ment park’s carousel oper­a­tor. Since their breach five years ago, Humpty has remar­ried to Ginny (Kate Winslet) – aka Virginia – a one-​time aspir­ing actress whose dreams of stage suc­cess evap­o­rat­ed when her first hus­band fled the coop, leav­ing her alone to raise their son Richie, now a trou­bled six-​year-​old arson­ist with a bon­fire fetish. Between Humpty’s dimin­ish­ing carousel busi­ness and Ginny’s mea­ger earn­ings wait­ing tables at the clam house, they’re just bare­ly able to keep a roof over their heads – a small apart­ment that looks out at the Wonder Wheel itself – loom­ing over them dai­ly like a giant metaphor. Adding Carolina to the cramped space makes for a com­bustible cock­tail of shat­tered hopes and undy­ing dreams – espe­cial­ly in the wake of Mickey’s rev­e­la­tion that he is also Ginny’s lover.

It doesn’t take a doc­tor­ate in Woody Allen to know that Carolina will soon cap­ture Mickey’s heart and throw a wrench into Mickey’s and Ginny’s affair – for such is the fleet­ing, tran­sient nature of love in near­ly all of Allen’s movies. It’s also not a stretch to guess that Carolina hasn’t seen the last of her husband’s cohorts (cheek­i­ly played by Sopranos vet­er­ans Tony Sirico and Steve Schirripa). Is there a point, then, to such a rehash? Not at first glance and per­haps not with­out a con­sid­er­a­tion of Allen’s broad­er body of work. Within that broad­er frame­work, how­ev­er, it becomes clear that Allen is rewrit­ing his past, cast­ing shop­worn themes, char­ac­ters and sto­ry ele­ments in a new con­text to sup­port a revised view of love and life. The sign­posts look the same, but the des­ti­na­tion has changed – for Allen is now old­er, more cir­cum­spect, more reflec­tive. If Ginny’s apoplec­tic reac­tion to her young lover’s breakup speech evokes that of Manhattan’s youth­ful Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) when Isaac (Allen) con­fess­es to hav­ing fall­en in love with some­one else (real-​life then-​partner Diane Keaton), it’s like­ly by design, for the two scenes book­end the real-​life dra­ma of Allen’s affair with Soon-​Yi Previn, the adopt­ed daugh­ter of his long­time off-​screen part­ner and 80s era on-​screen muse Mia Farrow. The dif­fer­ence, of course, is that the actu­al affair rep­re­sent­ed a betray­al of the Manhattan par­a­digm where Isaac reject­ed a younger woman in favor of a more age-​appropriate rela­tion­ship, real-​life Woody did just the oppo­site. In Wonder Wheel he shuf­fles the deck once again to give audi­ences a first for an Allen movie: a young man break­ing up with an old­er woman (a failed actress, no less) to pur­sue a woman clos­er to his own age (his pre­vi­ous lover’s step-​daughter, no less) and vast­ly more com­pat­i­ble in temperament.

Kate Winslet in Woody Allen’s WONDER WHEEL, an Amazon Studios release. Credit: Jessica Miglio /​Amazon Studios.

Whether ful­ly inten­tion­al or not, the take­away for audi­ences is like­ly to be both somber and sober­ing – as Mickey jus­ti­fies his crazy” pur­suit of the pipe dream” that is Carolina: The heart has its own hiero­glyph­ics.” It’s a ratio­nale that almost per­fect­ly mir­rors the one offered by Allen in his 2001 Time Magazine inter­view with Walter Isaacson: The heart wants what it wants.” Little won­der, then, that Allen offers up Mickey and Carolina as an ide­al­ized ver­sion of him­self and Soon-​Yi – an affair that begat a mar­riage (and chil­dren) that has become the longest and most sta­ble rela­tion­ship of Allen’s tem­pes­tu­ous life – or that he has writ­ten Mickey as the one char­ac­ter who exists entire­ly out­side the fam­i­ly dynam­ic – again, a reflec­tion of Allen’s view of him­self and his rela­tion­ship to Mia and Soon-​Yi: I am not Soon-Yi’s father or step­fa­ther,” he told Time’s Isaacson. I’ve nev­er even lived with Mia.”

Autobiography, of course, is but the most super­fi­cial aspect of Allen’s films – there is yet a deep­er lay­er to Wonder Wheel that all but rewrites the tra­di­tion­al under­stand­ing of Allen’s pre­vi­ous pic­tures. Once again work­ing with his Café Society cin­e­matog­ra­ph­er, the great Vittorio Storaro, Allen paints Coney Island like a neon- and sunset-​lit 50s post­card – char­ac­ters bathed in gar­ish, unnat­ur­al hues of blue, pink, orange and yel­low – shift­ing col­ors fol­low­ing them every­where like an out­ward man­i­fes­ta­tion of their unbri­dled pas­sions, from the beach to the park and even into their apart­ment, explod­ing through the bed­room cur­tains like the flames of one of Richie’s mas­sive board­walk bon­fires. It’s an overt­ly the­atri­cal choice meant to under­score what, for Allen, is the main thrust of the film – a simul­ta­ne­ous evo­ca­tion of his own nos­tal­gia and an homage to the writ­ings of play­wright Eugene O’Neill.

Much of Allen’s fil­mog­ra­phy has been scrupu­lous­ly shaped to pay trib­ute to his lit­er­ary and cin­e­mat­ic heroes, and Wonder Wheel is no dif­fer­ent. Stardust Memories laid a wreath for Fellini. September and Another Woman did like­wise for Bergman. George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion was the real object of desire in Magic in the Moonlight – an affec­tion­ate imi­ta­tion that made no effort to even pre­tend oth­er­wise – where­as Hemingway and Fitzgerald them­selves were lit­er­al­ly on-​screen char­ac­ters in Midnight in Paris. The specter of Tennessee Williams, mean­while, hov­ered like a guardian angel over Cate Blanchett’s Oscar-​winning per­for­mance in Blue Jasmine – with a good deal of left­over Williams return­ing to hov­er here. Nevertheless, it’s O’Neill – whose name and works are invoked through­out, lest audi­ences miss it – who pre­sides over these woe­be­gone and regret­ful mis­fits, mar­gin­al work­ing class fig­ures fight­ing the despair that ebbs at their lives like the tide just beyond the board­walk. In both cas­es, it’s Mickey who’s there to answer the call – to reach out and res­cue the drown­ing, whether in the actu­al sea or the prover­bial seas of misfortune.

None of this, of course, is to sug­gest that Allen is either con­scious­ly or sub­con­scious­ly recast­ing him­self and his pri­vate life as a Eugene O’Neill dra­ma. Quite the con­trary, Wonder Wheel is a case of Allen once again endeav­or­ing to bet­ter under­stand him­self and his life through anoth­er artist’s gaze, seek­ing some form of self-​understanding and per­haps father­ly sanc­tion in the process. One need not have any great famil­iar­i­ty with The Iceman Cometh or Long Day’s Journey into Night to appre­ci­ate the extent of his affec­tion or feal­ty. That Allen should feel a father­ly kin­ship with O’Neill – not just dra­mat­i­cal­ly but per­son­al­ly – takes on greater sig­nif­i­cance in light of the fact that O’Neill’s daugh­ter Oona was just eigh­teen years of age when she mar­ried the leg­endary Charles Chaplin, 36 years her senior. It was Chaplin’s last and most suc­cess­ful rela­tion­ship, last­ing more than three decades until his death in 1977. The age dif­fer­ence between Allen and Soon-​Yi is 35 years, their rela­tion­ship hav­ing begun when each was rough­ly the same age as Oona and Chaplin. As their mar­riage also approach­es the three decade mark, it could well be argued that Allen, whose artis­tic genius and pri­vate pec­ca­dil­loes have fre­quent­ly earned him flat­ter­ing and unflat­ter­ing com­par­isons to Chaplin, has begun to see par­al­lels that make O’Neill’s works even more mean­ing­ful and per­son­al in this par­tic­u­lar phase of life.

Most view­ers like­ly won’t see Wonder Wheel as any­thing but a minor Allen con­fec­tion – an easy take­away if judged pure­ly as a stand-​alone effort. It offers lit­tle that audi­ences haven’t seen before, and takes few rel­a­tive risks com­pared to more richly-​lauded auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal efforts like Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters or the fes­ter­ing boil of bile that is Deconstructing Harry. Beneath the tepid veneer and post­card aes­thet­ics, how­ev­er, Wonder Wheel is a fierce­ly brave deep-​dive into Allen’s late-​life psy­che – a rare glimpse at a sin­gu­lar artist in unex­pect­ed tran­si­tion – steady­ing him­self for an uncer­tain future he sure­ly nev­er antic­i­pat­ed. It is both a rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and a res­ig­na­tion – though to what or whom, Allen leaves to audi­ences to decide for them­selves. After all – no one in Wonder Wheel ever actu­al­ly rides the Wonder Wheel – like a hope, it beck­ons with­out assur­ance; like a dream, it stirs the imag­i­na­tion with­out ful­fill­ment; like life itself, it just keeps turning.

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