We’ve never discussed separating the artist from the art as much as we have this year, but for just a moment let’s take a look at Woody Allen’s “Wonder Wheel” as if Allen’s reputation was unsullied, with not even a hint of scandal.
On its own “merits,” it would still be a dud. A sluggish, uninspired, period-piece retread of so many earlier and much better Allen films, filled with overly familiar characters and situations and of course a soundtrack seemingly selected from Woody’s personal record collection.
Now then. Let’s return to reality, where it is impossible to ignore when a filmmaker is clearly referencing his own controversies (and perhaps worse).
In “Wonder Wheel,” the Allen doppelganger played by Justin Timberlake is Mickey, an aspiring playwright who romances Ginny (Kate Winslet), a married woman.
Mickey has genuine feelings for the increasingly clingy Ginny, but he doesn’t love her. He never said he loved her. When you think about it, it’s really her fault if she read too much into their situation.
Ah, but Mickey has fallen in love — with Ginny’s stepdaughter, Carolina (Juno Temple). As Mickey puts it, one can’t really control these things. Love wants what love wants. (Allen infamously said, “The heart wants what it wants.” Mickey’s line: “The heart has its own hieroglyphics.”)
Of course Ginny would be upset and distraught and devastated upon learning of Mickey’s love for Carolina, but as written by Allen and played by Winslet, Ginny becomes completely unhinged, to the point of criminal madness.
Come on Woody. How are we NOT supposed to think this is some sort of commentary on the whole Mia Farrow/Soon-Yi story?
Again, though, setting all that outside unpleasantness aside and reviewing the film as a film, “Wonder Wheel” is a good-looking and well-acted nothing of a movie, set in and around the Coney Island of the 1950s.
Timberlake’s Mickey is a lifeguard, graduate student, aspiring writer and bull—- artist who on occasion addresses the camera as he tells the tale of a particularly melodramatic summer.
This is not a career highlight for Winslet. She’s a great actress who throws herself and then some, with varying success, into a character who feels like warmed-over version of Cate Blanchett’s character in “Blue Jasmine.” Her Ginny is a profoundly unhappy waitress married to a human belch of a man named Humpty (Jim Belushi), who is prone to hitting her when he’s on the sauce.
Ginny’s son from a previous marriage, Richie (Jack Gore), is a juvenile delinquent who ditches school on a daily basis to watch movies, and is addicted to setting fires, under the pier and even in apartment buildings and offices. (Every time we drop in on the story of this sad and clearly sick kid, the movie loses whatever momentum it had.)
Humpty also has an offspring from an earlier marriage: Carolina (Juno Temple), who shows up on their doorstep unannounced, some five years after Humpty told Carolina he would never have anything to do with her when she married a mobbed-up punk.
Now Carolina is on the run, having spilled the beans to the feds about her husband’s criminal activities. She figures her husband’s cronies won’t look for her at Humpty’s because they know she hasn’t talked to her father in five years.
Allen peppers in multiple references to the works of Eugene O’Neill. Winslet’s Ginny feels like a cousin to Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois from “A Streetcar Named Desire.” At times “Wonder Wheel” makes almost Shakespearean reaches in character and plot.
All hokum. All window dressing for a limp, underwhelming, irritating soap opera.
This might sound crazy, but Jim Belushi gives the best and most interesting performance in the film. At least that’s an interesting casting choice by Allen, as he’s done so many times over the years, e.g., Andrew Dice Clay in “Blue Jasmine.”
Contrast that with the roles of the two gangsters hunting down Carolina. Steve Schirripa and Tony Sirico from “The Sopranos” play the mobsters — and that only serves to take us out of the movie.
Not that it’s the first time certain elements of this movie took us out of the movie.
Amazon Studios presents a film written and directed by Woody Allen. Rated PG-13 (for thematic content including some sexuality, language and smoking). Running time: 101 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.