Friday, December 1, 2017

Woody Allen's Look Into The Mirror, Yet Again

Justin Timberlake as Mickey, Kate Winslet as Ginny and Juno Temple as Carolina in Woody Allen's drama "Wonder Wheel". 
Amazon Studios

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, December 1, 2017

Like Louis C.K. and many artists, Woody Allen hews very closely to the fibers of his personal life, and in "Wonder Wheel" those fibers are as disturbingly exposed as ever as the claustrophobia of 1950's Coney Island, Brooklyn comes toppling down on Ginny (Kate Winslet).  Ginny is trapped in an unhappy marriage to Humpty (Jim Belushi), with a pyromaniac son (Jack Gore) whose silent Greek chorus act is actually liberation from seedy, oversaturated color cinematography that reeks of comic-book grime. 

More than ever in his long film career in "Wonder Wheel" Mr. Allen wants to keep his cake as he devours it.  He displays the sleaze, neuroses, booziness and immorality of his surface Brooklyn players with creepy allure yet cries with regret and self-righteousness (Justin Timberlake as Mickey, the "save my life" lifeguard.)  As you watch "Wonder Wheel" you will see that Mr. Allen is straight out calling Mia Farrow (Ms. Winslet's Ginny character) a murderer of Soon-Yi (the Carolina character played by Juno Temple, who looks oddly pubescent here.) 

Carolina is hiding out in Brooklyn after being marked by the Mob.  She has made many a mistake and paid a dear price.  "I was only 20", she repeats, five years on.  Carolina's return to Brooklyn is a desperate and unwelcome one after being cast out of the household by her dad Humpty, who looks as if he wants to go all Jackie Gleason "to the moon Alice" on Carolina.  Humpty later threatens to kill Ginny.  So much violence in words lingers throughout "Wonder Wheel" -- violence is wafting, lurking, and waiting.  But no violence is ever seen. 

"Wonder Wheel" is a drama about (and replete with) violations and the violated.  When Ginny realizes that her own indiscretions are being violated by another, the level of violence in her own interrogations are spiky enough to make the most seasoned cross-examining attorney in a criminal trial blush.  Any attempt to breathe or exhale results in more claustrophobia, even in the sunniest or most pleasurable stolen moments.  The opening shot sets the tempo for confinement: the sunny Coney Island beach littered with people, and barely a space of sand large enough left for any additional beachgoers to sit in.

All of this -- the trappings, the dysfunction, the abruptness and selfishness -- is uncomfortable to watch.  And it is uncomfortable especially now, given everything America is finally waking up to (Donald, an endemic, endless parade of sexual predators in and out of power, apologists for immorality, child molesters, racists and institutional white supremacy.)  Mr. Allen's films have often been uncomfortable viewing including when they have been far better and more troubling.  There is a rule that moviegoers must adhere to for many filmmakers' movies and for this one in particular: almost every character in a Woody Allen film is Woody Allen.  On another note, "Wonder Wheel" if nothing else, stands for the proposition of being the wrong film released at the right time.

If "Wonder Wheel", which boasts good production design but lousy acting (Mr. Timberlake as the "Woody Allener" in an semi-incestuous tango) is committed to holding an audience hostage to Mr. Allen's personal life it succeeds.  If the film aims to execute anything memorable, it doesn't.  Everyone either over acts (Mr. Belushi as the hardscrabble, alcoholic working-class carousel operator) or underwhelms (Ms. Temple).  Even Ms. Winslet, a typically understated actor whose subtle flourishes resonate well intellectually and physically for the characters she plays ("Little Children", "Revolutionary Road", for example), goes off the boil in an act three designed to essentially burn down Brooklyn and all of Mr. Allen's sworn personal enemies. 

What stuck with me as much as the blatant therapy session (Ingmar Bergman had more than a few of those in his own films) Mr. Allen hurled at me on the big screen is the utter contempt he appears to have for working-class people, for women (a repeated refrain in his work -- see "Manhattan", "Husbands And Wives", "Match Point", "Blue Jasmine" and others) and Jewish people (though in truth that is actually far clearer in many more of his other films, rather than here.)  More to the point, "Wonder Wheel" doesn't give Italian-Americans much of a name. 

Tensions and contempt simmer throughout "Wonder Wheel".  Very few instances exist where someone isn't angry, agitated, shouting, smashing plates or jealous.  I felt I was in the middle of Mr. Allen's and Ms. Farrow's full-pitched shouting match, only covered in colored, shady confectionery.  Mr. Allen has done this onscreen routine better and with sharper resonance and meaning in prior work.  Here it feels faded, jaded, overly theatrical and exhausting.  When Mickey talks about Eugene O'Neill, lying and the human condition I yearned for the young silent pyromaniac to rush in and burn down the whole "Wonder Wheel" film set. 

Also with: Tony Sirico, Steve Schrippa, Geneva Carr, Max Casella, Debi Mazar.

"Wonder Wheel" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for thematic content including some sexuality, language and smoking.  The film's running time is one hour and 40 minutes.

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