(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.
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.