I Didn't Like It
by Katie Herzog
Full disclosure: While I may technically be a "woman" (whatever that means these days), it's debatable who has higher testosterone levels, me or Sean Nelson. He may be taller than me, but he is certainly not butcher. Regardless, Wonder Wheel, the latest trip down memory lane for octogenarian Woody Allen, is a film about the maybe inherent, at least in Allen's view, differences between men and women. Set in 1950s Coney Island, the men are either violent or foolish, and the women are just plain crazy.
Justin Timberlake and his very bare legs play lifeguard and aspiring playwright Mickey, who has what he considers a summer fling with Ginny (Kate Winslet), a near-40 waitress in an unsatisfying second marriage. Life is chaotic for Ginny, a romantic and a dreamer who still thinks she could be an actress someday. Ginny lives in a neon-lit apartment on the boardwalk with husband, Humpty (Jim Belushi, in a stellar performance), who hits her when he falls off the wagon, and her son, whose only hobby is going to the "pictures" and setting fire to things. Mickey, who fancies himself an intellectual, is as vapid as he is cute, but Ginny sees in him the possibility of escape. The relationship is her way out. But when Humpty's daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), moves in, fleeing from her gangster husband and his band of thugs, Mickey and Carolina meet, and perhaps inevitably (this is Woody Allen, after all), he falls for the younger model.
Timberlake is the narrator, but he isn't the star. That title belongs to Winslet, whose shrill, over-the-top hysteria belongs more on stage, where you need to project, than on film. There is nothing understated about Ginny, and as she grows increasingly shrill and mad with jealousy, the trajectory of the film seems to lay itself out. It is, in a word, predictable: Of course Ginny sacrifices everything for a man, and of course he chooses someone else. That's just what men and women do, right?
Maybe in Allen's world. But in this world, Wonder Wheel is a bust. The one remarkable part of this otherwise undistinguished film is the color: The whole thing looks like it's been run through an Instagram filter, with the saturation turned up just a notch. As Carolina confides in Ginny that she may have a crush on Mickey, the light turns from red to blue to orange to pink to blue and back again, shifting as Ginny becomes more and more hysterical. Here's a pretty young woman falling in love with her stepmother's boyfriend. For Woody Allen, what's not to like about that?
Who Cares If I Liked It?
by Sean Nelson
There's a degree to which discussing Woody Allen's films—or any films—in the context of the transgression his daughter has credibly accused him of is not only pointless but abhorrent. The choice to boycott, or at least to ignore, anything with his name attached seems perfectly sensible and legitimate. But long before that accusation cast a shadow over his life and career, there were ample reasons to give up on Allen's seemingly endless stream of late-period feature films.
Even if you're prepared to allow that he managed to pull out a surprise every fourth or fifth try, there has been a larger question mark looming over the 18 or so films he has made this century: Why is he doing this? What audience is he addressing? What is he on about?
Despite their noteworthy collaborations with certain actors, production designers, and cinematographers, late Allen films bear an essential sameness of tone—even within their superficial genre variation—that make them all feel like one long, undifferentiated monologue, a story that refuses to end.
I can't think of another celebrated director whose dialogue sounds so written, whose class and dramatic conceits betray such total sequestration from any observable world, whose human observations so utterly fail to bear scrutiny off the screen. This wasn't always true.
Wonder Wheel is no different. Allen is in drama mode here, in the vein of Interiors, September, and Another Woman—which is to say, a story about an increasingly unhinged woman whose desperate need for love and absolution brings everyone around her to the brink of disaster. Though it pretends to empathy, the film feels more like a protracted punishment for her essential shallowness of character. It might have been a stage play, but that wouldn't have saved it from feeling false.
Kate Winslet does a great deal of acting in the role of Ginny, a once-promising performer whose entire life now consists of consequences for the bad choices of her youth. She's married to a coarse, penniless loser (Jim Belushi), gets in a love triangle with her stepdaughter (Juno Temple, excellent) and a much younger lifeguard (Justin Timberlake, unbearable), while steadfastly neglecting her pyromaniac son and waiting for the moralistic story to go full Bergman, which it dutifully does.
There was a time when you could count on even lesser Allen movies to boast a fantastic ensemble cast. Those days appear to be gone; he can still attract a star like Winslet, but she spends two-thirds of the film playing off the unworthy likes of Belushi and Timberlake.
It almost feels like he's daring you to watch.