It has to be said that there is nary a favorable reception or assessment of Woody Allen these days (a light defense of Harvey Weinstein being no help), and perhaps, as a side consequence, no work of his can be viewed with pure objectivity at this juncture. The contempt women in particular have for his frozen in time approach to storytelling (forcing him evermore to revert to the past in the settings of his screenplays) further signifies the auteur’s downfall. Yet it must also be stated that Wonder Wheel‘s critical maligning has been somewhat over the top, with certain outposts going so far as to compare the narrative to the work of Tommy Wiseau, additionally insisting it can’t be a coincidence that both The Disaster Artist and Wonder Wheel were released the same weekend.
Yet for all the collective panning, maybe it’s the critics themselves who have failed to see the true intent behind the film, taking the “bad acting” too literally instead of framing it in the context of narrator Mickey Rubin’s (Justin Timberlake) aspiration of becoming a playwright. With the same bare bones approach to creating a stage play, Wonder Wheel is most reliant on the fraught emotions of its protagonists, including Ginny (Kate Winslet), a failed actress turned waitress whose dissatisfaction with her unfavorably named second husband, Humpty (Jim Belushi, the worst in this lineup of performances), reaches a fever pitch at the beginning of the summer. Apart from serving at Ruby’s Clam Shack, Ginny must also contend with a pyromaniac child, Richie (Jack Gore), and forcing herself to stay on the wagon so that Humpty doesn’t succumb to the temptations of alcohol that always make him fly off the handle.
And in the backdrop of it all is the imposing sight and sound of Coney (“You never get used to it,” barks Ginny) and its trademark Wonder Wheel. The vibrant look of this beloved, cult figure of a beach just as it was about to segue into its more dilapidated years is something Allen captures with the perspicacity of a denizen who knows the Brooklyn of this epoch like the back of his hand (or would it be too inappropriate to say like the back of Dylan Farrow?). Watching over it all from Bay 7 is Mickey, working as a lifeguard for the summer to save up enough money to travel again, to somewhere like Bora Bora (due to one of many pretentious artist references that includes Paul Gaugin). And while people have seemed to have taken the most issue with the acting and dialogue of Wonder Wheel, the main problem is believing that anyone would commute from their apartment in Greenwich Village to Coney Island for the pittance of a wage garnered from lifeguarding.
But maybe it’s as Mickey says, and fate so often plays a hand in augmenting the danger of our tragic flaws, hence the taking on of this job. In Mickey’s case, it’s a desire to pursue an “interesting” older woman that will put a check mark in the column of “the artist lifestyle.” Enrolled in graduate school at NYU to study European drama, Mickey tells Ginny of his dream to become one of the greats of the medium, like Eugene O’Neill, which he name checks as part of his seduction method. Eager to get back into theater herself, Ginny later expresses her greatest dream to be starring in one of Mickey’s plays. Destiny has other distractions for Mickey, however, when Humpty’s estranged daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), an attractive twenty-six year old blonde who has just escaped from her mobster boyfriend, Frank, turns up on their doorstep. After the death of her mother, Carolina went against her dying wish by marrying Frank, who Humpty labels nothing more than a “wop” who wasn’t even handsome enough to risk her well-being for. That was five years ago. With Frank aware of Carolina’s lack of a relationship with her father, she goes in search of him near the carousel where he works to ask for forgiveness and be taken in. Instead, she’s directed to Ginny, who starts out as more of an advocate for her than Humpty. But oh how the tides turn once Mickey starts making eyes at Carolina after running into Ginny with her outside of a movie theater playing Winchester ’73. And yes, the obsession with film–with the fakery and nonreality of it–is omnipresent in Wonder Wheel (almost as much as it is in The Purple Rose of Cairo). From Humpty chastising Ginny for her religious reading of movie magazines and listening to of radio shows as though she believed they were truth to her own son’s constant thievery of Humpty’s money to sneak into the cinema, it’s no mere chance that the falsity of silver screen happy endings casts an endless shadow over the plot. Yet, to be sure, there is something rote about the way Allen presents Ginny with her eventual tragedy that doesn’t come across as well as it does in previous works like Match Point and Blue Jasmine. Ginny, of course, is another extension of Cate Blanchett’s eponymous award-winning role (though, sadly, Winslet will not be receiving any such awards). Emotionally unstable and doomed to crack completely with one more situation gone wrong, the psychological similarities are undeniable. Or maybe Allen simply sees most women as prone to flying off the rails of mental control at any minute.
Whatever the case, the clock continues to tick on Carolina’s safety after Frank sends his henchmen–one of which of course had to be played by The Sopranos‘ Tony Sirico–to Coney just to make sure she didn’t scrape the bottom of the barrel enough to actually go there. Lying with confidence as he deflects them to try their search in California, Ginny interrupts their conversation to tell him to stop hitting her son, forcing her to also corroborate the story of Carolina’s M.I.A. status. Once the goons leave, Ginny becomes scandalized by Carolina’s negative impact on their own safety, accusing Humpty of spoiling her, adding “You treat her like a girlfriend”–a statement that’s cringeworthy for its allusive to Allen’s own life quality.
As her affair with Mickey is the only thing keeping her together, Ginny grows more obnoxiously consumed (spouting things a girl should never say, like, “I love that we’re both Leos”) with running away with him–of being poetically rescued by a lifeguard. “I’m playing the part of a waitress,” she asserts with increasing repetitiveness to Mickey, as though gradually dissociating from what her life actually is as opposed to what it could still be. The “could still be” part resting heavily on Mickey’s shoulders, increasingly desirous of shrugging like Atlas.
And, in Williamsian fashion, no play is complete without one or more main characters snapping. Alas, modern audiences won’t see it that way–as any sort of homage to the stylings of the former titans of playwriting (in Williams’ case, minus the part where someone grapples with their homosexuality). To put it in perspective, a recent Broad City episode (“Florida”) encapsulated Allen’s disconnect with the average moviegoer best: “This place is so scary. There are no gay people. There are zero interracial couples. Literally only straight white people. What are we, in a goddamn Woody Allen movie?” The disparaging remark confirms the sentiment that Allen’s place is shrinking in a world where his brand of being the last vestige of a certain school of male thinking is no longer tolerated. And even in the early 00s, when Allen was experiencing a short-lived renaissance, Samantha Jones was still declaring, “The Woody Allen thing is so over.” But take a ride to 1950s Coney Island, and maybe you can see a glimmer of the former allure.