Wonder Wheel

December 8, 2017
Kate Winslet red-faced in 'Wonder Wheel'
Kate Winslet red-faced in 'Wonder Wheel'

“Oh God!” says Kate Winslet, towards the end of Wonder Wheel, “Spare me the bad drama!” Alas, by then it’s too late. We’ve just endured one hour and 40 minutes of dialogue so wooden and scenes so hopelessly stagey, no actor could survive such a catastrophe.

It’s been a long time since I went into a new Woody Allen film with anything but diminished expectations although it’s hard to explain why his work has become so frightful. Allen is a director of superior intelligence and enormous experience. When he was good he was brilliant, but his masterpiece, Annie Hall, was made 40 years ago.

It hasn’t been a plunge into the abyss but an inexorable decline, with a few precipitous dips and occasional pauses. Audiences and critics tend to snatch at a good one-liner or a lively performance looking for something to praise.

Some speak fondly of Midnight in Paris (2011), but I thought it was one of his worst. Blue Jasmine (2013) and last year’s Café Society were more tolerable, but perhaps only because the preceding films were unspeakable. If truth be told, the dialogue in both movies was still pretty bad and the characters cut from cardboard. Worst of all are those features where the protagonists are so pretentious or obnoxious that viewers could grind their teeth to stumps by the time the credits roll. In this respect I imagined it would be difficult to surpass Joachim Phoenix’s world-weary professor in Irrational Man (2015), but one should never underestimate Allen’s genius.

At the beginning of Wonder Wheel, as the camera pans slowly across a picturesque view of the beach at Coney Island in the 1950s, we are introduced to Justin Timberlake’s Mickey, who will serve as the narrator. Mickey has a summer job as a lifeguard, but proclaims himself a writer who will one day create great plays.

He is the insufferable, self-centred intellectual we meet in every Woody Allen movie, this time in a starring role, not a cameo. Mickey tells us he’s been having an affair with Ginny (Kate Winslet), an unhappily married older woman, who was once an actress but now works as a waitress in a clam joint. Her husband is James Belushi’s Humpty (yes, Humpty), who looks after the merry-go-round. Despite his loud mouth and incipient alcoholism, Humpty has a genuine love for his wife. Ginny has a perpetual headache and a bottomless pit of unfulfilled desires.

Ginny’s small son from a previous marriage, Richie (Jack Gore), has responded to the domestic disaster by becoming a pyromaniac. When Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty’s 26-year-old daughter from his first marriage turns up, the tensions move into the red zone. That’s not hard because the interior shots are permeated with lurid colours – red, blue, yellow – suggestive of expressionist or symbolist cinema. The plot, however, is pure kitchen sink, complete with dirty dishes.

Carolina has fled from her mobster husband and returned home after five years in which she and her father have not exchanged a word. By talking to the FBI she has made herself a marked woman, living in fear of her life. Naturally she does the first thing any fugitive would do: go back to her father’s place on Coney Island and get a job waiting tables.

This is not the most implausible part of the plot. Most implausible is that anyone could put up with Mickey for two minutes without wanting to brain him with a blunt object. Nevertheless, Ginny falls hard, and dares to dream they will one day have a life together. Mickey, however, takes a quick peek at Carolina, and decides he’s in love. He excuses his duplicity by invoking his “romantic” nature. “Maybe it’s because I’m a writer,” he muses.

He even meets with a “philosopher” friend to discuss his affair with Ginny, explaining that “it fits into the romantic narrative of the writer’s life.”

Just to show his self-centredness is not confined to one relationship, he tells Carolina: “I’ve got book knowledge, but you’ve tasted life.” In other words: you’d make great subject matter.

Wonder Wheel is peppered with references to classic American drama. Humpty sounds like a character that was cut from A View From the Bridge or A Streetcar named Desire, for being too much of a cliché. Ginny does her best Blanche DuBois impersonation, although she often bears a closer resemblance to Stanley Kowalski. Mickey gives us a little lecture in appreciation of Eugene O’Neill.

It comes across as parody because Allen’s script is so awful it never seems to have progressed beyond a first sketch in which motivations are crudely mapped out. Another possibility is that he’s channelling Tommy Wiseau, whose talents are currently being celebrated in The Disaster Artist. When Carolina follows an enraged Ginny into the bedroom and begins a speech with “Hi!” the sense of Wiseau’s presence is very strong.

Perhaps this is the key. For the only way to appreciate Wonder Wheel may be to stop inwardly groaning and laugh out loud. Taken at face value it has all the makings of a great cult movie.

Wonder Wheel
Written & directed by Woody Allen
Starring Kate Winslet, Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple, James Belushi, Jack Gore
USA, rated PG, 101 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 9 December, 2017