In light of the recent spate of sexual assault allegations in the entertainment industry, we’ve spent a lot of time at Jmore discussing whether one’s artistic output can be judged separately from the artist. If you fire these perpetrators, take the shows off the air, and write entire characters out of scripts, does the original product cease to exist – like all those now-empty Confederate statue pedestals? Or, can it still be viewed and consumed based on what it once represented? These are murky times we’re living in.
With this in mind, I decided to take in the recent screening of Woody Allen’s latest release, “Wonder Wheel,” to see if any answers revealed themselves. I emerged thinking I have no idea what Allen hoped to articulate with this film – a theatrical melodramatic romance set in 1950s Coney Island. (Allen is no stranger to controversy – he was accused of sexual abuse of his adopted daughter Dylan in the early ‘90s.)
“Wonder Wheel” offered some highlights, several lowlights and even a few “rain lights.” And I can truly say I was able to sit through an entire tale without judging it by standards set forth in today’s cultural climate. If the plot had been about pedophilia (see “Manhattan”) or sexual assault, that might have been harder to achieve. But I’m still not feeling like I need to go back in time and rejudge the entire Allen canon, or Hitchcock’s, or Polanski’s or Spacey’s, for that matter. And there are plenty of films from every decade that don’t hold up when viewed through a modern lens (for instance, I was recently startled by the language and themes in “Saturday Night Fever,” none of which I recalled from my original adolescent viewing).
Here are some observations from the intimate “Wonder Wheel,” which focuses primarily on the intertwined relationships of just four main characters.
Kate Winslet stars as Ginny, an overworked ex-actress with a rich fantasy life and dreams of escaping her daily routine. It’s intriguing to see Winslet glammed down and seemingly channeling an overwrought Edie Falco.
Justin Timberlake plays Mickey, a beach lifeguard with aspirations of being a writer. It’s entertaining to hear him attempt his best New York accent, but he’s less adept at pulling off the trademark nebbishness as, say, Jesse Eisenberg in “To Rome with Love” or Kenneth Branagh in “Celebrity.” He does serve as a sort of one-man Greek chorus (and it should be noted that there are plenty of allusions to both Oedipus and “Hamlet” peppered throughout).
Jim Belushi plays Ginny’s husband Humpty. He has a BIG screen presence – occupying most of the physical space in the tiny apartment set. However — and this could entirely have been the fault of the direction – his role comes off as a second string Stanley Kowalski (“A Streetcar Named Desire”). So much yelling. So many mood swings. Too many people in very close quarters on the Coney Island boardwalk (in a room that once housed a freak show and overlooks the titular Ferris wheel). Not a lot of room for nuance here.
The dialogue and writing – There are several themes present in “Wonder Wheel” that are common to Allen’s work: infidelity, romantic love, the fragile human condition, rich fantasy lives. But the over-the-top, almost farcical, lines are delivered as if even the characters don’t believe what they’re saying.
To wit (though, in fairness, taken out of context here):
“Reality with all its pros and cons.”
“The heart has its own hieroglyphics.” (Yuck.)
“You’ve been around the world. “Yeah, but, you’ve been around the block.” (Ugh. Queue eye roll.)
“She’s very pretty, but somewhere there’s a tragic flaw.” (Naturally.)
This leads us to…
The rain lights:
This is a favorite line uttered by writer wannabe and our narrator Mickey whenever he wants to compliment a woman, including Juno Temple’s ingenue Carolina. As in: “You look great in this rain light.” (Groan.)
I’m no critic, but those are my main takeaways from “Wonder Wheel.” I’m relieved to say, while this isn’t Allen’s best, most romantic, funniest or most important, it does still serve as a small bit of escapism at a time when real life problems are infiltrating every bit of pop culture. I do believe we can continue to consume, consider and appreciate the music, movies, books and events of our time – even as their creators continue to behave in unforgivable ways.
“Wonder Wheel,” directed by Woody Allen and starring Justin Timberlake, Kate Winslet, Jim Belushi and Juno Temple, opens in Baltimore theaters on Dec. 15.