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Can You Separate ‘Wonder Wheel’ From Woody Allen?

The director’s new film, starring Kate Winslet and Justin Timberlake, is fine—typical of Allen’s later period. But it is becoming impossible to view his art without considering his life

Amazon Studios/Ringer illustration

One of the greatest moments in the 1951 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire comes when Vivien Leigh’s distressed southern belle, Blanche DuBois, is confronted by new suitor Mitch about the scandalous, clandestine details of her previous marriage; in a fit of rage, he rips apart the cheap Chinese lantern she’d hung over her bedroom’s bare, dangling light bulb. Blanche has a dark past and Mitch, who is tired of being lied to, is trying to bring it to light. The metaphor is obvious, but the dialogue is transcendently poetic. “I don’t want realism,” Blanche begs, recoiling from the sudden illumination. “I want magic.”

In Wonder Wheel, Woody Allen doesn’t want realism. He wants magic. And the wizardly veteran cinematographer Vittorio Storaro tries to supply it for him, bathing the frame in waves of color-coded light. When frustrated actress-turned-waitress Ginny (Kate Winslet) delivers a long, tortured Blanche Dubois–style monologue about her late first husband, she’s shown in hot red tones that gradually recede into a cool blue. The shift is tied simultaneously to the character’s psychological state and the blinking neon environs of the Coney Island boardwalk outside her bedroom window. Later, when she dons an old dress and stalks around her apartment in a fugue state—shades, again, of Streetcar—the absence of a filter strips away the illusions that have consumed her.

This is sophisticated filmmaking, but so what? Wonder Wheel is magical in a superficial way; it has a surface beauty that can’t disguise the material’s basic banality and ugliness—or the feeling that we’ve seen it all before. Allen was chasing Williams as recently as 2013’s Blue Jasmine, which won Cate Blanchett a Best Actress Oscar partially for channeling some of Vivien Leigh’s mania, but mostly for managing to ground a character comprised of pieces of other hysterical heroines in something like a plausible emotional and behavioral context. Winslet, who is no less gifted a performer than Blanchett, doesn’t achieve a similar gravitas, nor does the movie around her. And Storaro’s cinematography, while remarkable on a technical level, becomes the equivalent of Blanche’s papier-mâché lantern—a cheap bauble slung decorously overtop of a stark, unrewarding artistic perspective.

There are a couple of ways to look figuratively at the visually pleasing object that is Wonder Wheel. The first involves adopting the postmodern lens described above and taking inventory of the literary reference points in Allen’s screenplay—not only Williams, but also Eugene O’Neill, who is described by former Iceman Cometh cast member Ginny as “dark and terrifying.” (“I played one of the whores,” she recalls brightly.) Ginny’s misery evokes a combination of Streetcar’s two sisters: Like Stella, she’s married to a brooding, alpha-male gorilla (Jim Belushi as the ridiculously named “Humpty”), and like Blanche, she thinks deserves better and tries to will herself into a more romantically and emotionally fulfilling relationship. Where O’Neill comes in is in the story’s heavy, deterministic arc toward tragedy: If there’s a thesis here, it’s that you can’t stop what cometh.

This leads us to the second way to look at Wonder Wheel, which is in light —or more accurately, in the shadow—of its maker’s life and experiences outside the frame. This sort of imitation-of-life interpretation is a running, circular constant in the reception of Allen’s work—a grotesque wonder wheel of presumption and supposition that’s as off-putting to participate in as it is irresistible, and as urgent as it is arguably a disfiguring of critical responsibility. I disliked Allen’s Irrational Man (2015) because I didn’t believe a second of its Dostoevsky-inflected plot about a philosophy professor who contrives to murder a stranger and is exhilarated by the thrill of getting away with it. I hated it—and I mean really, truly, despised it—because I intuited something authentically autobiographical in the narrative details. Watching Allen tell the story of a man who does a terrible thing, and then lies to his partner about it, and then fantasizes about killing her when she won’t drop it made me anxious, uncomfortable, and disgusted in a way that went beyond the boundaries of the story.

So what is Wonder Wheel about? Ginny and Humpty are unhappy; his job as a carousel-operator is a blazingly obvious symbol—like the looming wonder wheel of the title—of what has become a recursive, purgatorial cohabitation. We’re told off the top by the film’s narrator, the lithe lifeguard-slash–Greenwich Village–hipster Mickey (Justin Timberlake), that such symbols and metaphors are on the menu because things are being filtered through his perspective as an aspiring novelist, making him a stand-in for Allen. (Which explains why JT stammers through his lines like a Summer Stock Alvy Singer.) It also opens up his role in the unfolding drama to our skeezed-out scrutiny.

Twenty-something Mickey—who, in one of the script’s more intelligent bits of symbology, is a lifeguard who’s too narcissistic to watch the water—is having a summer fling with Ginny; her burning desire to break out of her professional and domestic prisons (which, in one of the script’s more leaden bits of symbology, include a young son from her first marriage who sets blazing fires all around town) fits perfectly with his hunger for adventure and experience. “That’s a hot age,” he tells her when she reveals she’s on the eve of her 40th birthday. But Mickey is also infatuated with Humpty’s daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), a blithe scatterbrain who Ginny resents for any number of reasons. Carolina’s sudden arrival in New York after years of self-imposed exile from her father, in the company of a slimy Italian mobster husband, is cramping Ginny’s style (and evaporating their household’s meager savings).

Ginny hates that Mickey, who talks to her about art and drama and promises to help her start a new life, is drawn to a younger woman who happens to be her step-daughter. And she’s nearly as mad at Humpty for how he dotes on Carolina, acting more like a boyfriend than a dad; she’s got him wrapped around her little finger.

This is all meant intentionally to be melodramatic, to the point of being Greek: Like Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Wonder Wheel gestures towards ancient theatricality, possibly to elide its own preposterousness. (It’s not Belushi’s fault that Humpty is a caricature of “blue collar” slobbiness, because Allen can’t conceive anybody who’s not an aspiring playwright or intellectual in anything more than two cartoonish dimensions.)

Mickey helpfully furnishes Carolina with a copy of Ernest Jones’s psychoanalytic manual Hamlet and Oedipus so that she—and we—can navigate the tangle of primal, taboo feelings at play here. And Allen is even more direct—which is to say, even more obnoxiously coy—when he has Mickey try to justify his capricious affections by saying “the heart has its own hieroglyphics.” It’s a bit of self-citation that suggests he could give a shit about separating the “art from the artist,” or that he can’t help himself: Decode those hieroglyphics and they might include a smirk and a middle finger.

The upshot of all this, storywise, is that Ginny—by turns tempted, turned on, guilty, betrayed, and frantically jealous, all acted by Winslet with plenty of energy, if not coherence (or a consistent American accent)—goes slowly teetering down on the boardwalk. And theoretically, so do we, wondering if Wonder Wheel is actually interesting at all past its moldy, predictable clichés and occasionally awful dialogue (“spare me the bad drama,” Ginny snarls at one point) because of the ways it runs parallel or perpendicular to reality.

The low-level grossness of the annual Woody Allen movie rife with philandering, spousal abuse, muffled whispers of incest, and premeditated murder—embodied in Wonder Wheel by Sopranos actors Tony Sirico and Steven Schirripa as mob heavies sent by Carolina’s ex-husband to rub her out—is its own sort of ritual. I’m not sure it brings anybody, including the filmmaker himself, much pleasure.

Because Allen is so pathologically committed to turning one of these out every year—to paraphrase a recent Baffler article on Steven Spielberg, he keeps making movies with impunity—these gears are set to keep grinding away, a carousel of flimsy magic and nauseous realism. Stop the ride—I want to get off.