In the Fullness of Time, “Wonder Wheel” Will Be Vindicated

It’s Coney Island History Day today, prompting me to ask: WTF happened to Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel? As a Coney Island aficionado I was hugely excited about the advent of this film for months (e.g., this earlier post)…then the movie was released last fall and it promptly sank without a ripple. As I rarely go to the cinema any more, I only just caught up with it, as it recently became available through Amazon streaming. And I’m here to tell you it ranks among his best work (and I’ll get to why). Yet the film turns out to have been among his worst critical and commercial failures, which in both cases I find inexplicable.

But not really. It’s explicable. There are many things going on. First there is the perennially recurring canard about Allen’s exhaustion, the “He keeps turning out these terrible movies every year” thing. I don’t say that that’s never been true, but I really don’t think it is true now. For me, his worst patch was roughly between 1996 (Everyone Says I Love You) and  2004 (Melinda and Melinda) with a couple of arguable slightly higher spots in the middle. For me, Anything Else (2003) and Melinda and Melinda are the nadir in terms of creative bankruptcy. But since Allen reinvented himself again with Matchpoint (2005) I have found most everything he’s done (with the exception of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger) to have been of a consistently high quality, alarmingly so for movies that are being turned out at so fast a pace. I’ll get to why that is, and how his films ought to be evaluated, in a bit. But true or not (I say not) the buzz abroad seems to be that Allen is back in another “bad stretch”. And lemmings listen to buzz.

Secondly, rightly or wrongly, Allen has undeniably been affected by the #metoo movement. Decades old actions and accusations resurfaced in this climate of grievance and retribution, and he is being boycotted by a significant segment of his already limited audience.

Thirdly, this was the first film to be distributed entirely by Amazon Studios. We take certain things for granted, but look at this dispassionately: a website became massive in the mail-order book business, then expanded into e-books, then into streaming video content, so now they’re now competent to distribute movies to cinemas? Maybe they will be, but not yet, and Wonder Wheel was the first film to be so distributed. My sense is that they bungled the roll-out, if they even gave it any effort at all, in light of my previous paragraph.

Anyway these are my gut explanations for why the film vanished so entirely. As I said, I loved it, and urge you to give it a chance (that is, if you’re not boycotting Allen. If you are, I entirely get why you are, and respect it. I’m not there yet, if I ever will be. More on that here)

By now you know that the film is a drama set in Coney Island during the early 1950s. Kate Winslet is the unhappy middle-aged wife of a carousel operator (Jim Belushi), who falls for a much younger lifeguard/aspiring playwright played by Justin Timberlake. A former actress herself, Winslet is within shouting distance of her former beauty, happiness and vitality. Timberlake seems to reawaken her hope, and a way out of her dead-end existence. Unfortunately, this trajectory is interrupted when Belushi’s pretty daughter (Juno Temple) shows up seeking refuge from her estranged gangster husband, who has a hit out on her. Naturally she and Timberlake fall for each other (shades of The Graduate) and Winslet goes berserk, with tragic results.

That’s the arc of it, and maybe it doesn’t sound very impressive. For some reason, Allen loves to put Italian Mafiosi in things. It would be a digression here to count up how many of his movies have this as an element, but it would represent some crazy large percentage of his output. It’s interesting, and somehow significant, but it must be acknowledged that he’s never grown beyond treating these characters as comical cartoons, drawn with very broad, Borscht Belt strokes. The culture at large moved well past this several decades ago with the films of Coppola and Scorsese, The Sopranos etc. We’ve had close to four decades of well-drawn, three dimensional portraits of such characters, so when Allen tries to fob this business off on us now at best we but endure it. These hoodlum characters might be at home in a comedy (if there), but when he puts them in a drama as he does here (it’s Tony Sirico and Steve Schirripa here) we’re inclined to be a little impatient. Both those actors have reams of street cred from their Sopranos turns. But now they’re back to playing those guys who harass Allen outside that cinema in Annie Hall, “Alvie Singer, am I right?”

But that’s a minor weakness. A former comedy writer, Allen occasionally falls back on familiar cliches. But he’s grown in other ways, significant ones, and they’re what’s key here.

First: if you don’t know or care about the theatre, or read and see and love plays, or at least have that as part of your make-up, don’t bother. This film is a meditation on art, in particular that art, as much as it is about its characters. Not just because the characters are aspiring theatre artists who role-play and have a reality problem, but because the screenplay itself is a formal homage to writers like Tennessee Williams and William Inge and Arthur Miller. A lot of the critical consensus I’ve come across is on the order of “too stagebound”, “too claustrophobic” and “too much like a play”. My response to those “criticisms” is “Go play with your G.I. Joes, you child.” If that’s all you have in your arsenal, you’re not a critic, you’re a reviewer. Those aspects are all in this film by design, and they are all valid artistic choices, your own educational shortcomings and maturity issues notwithstanding. Filming something “like a play” has been exhaustively justified by everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Andre Bazin to Elia Kazin to Jim Jarmusch. Shall we catalog the acknowledged masterpieces that are like plays or (just as often) are adapted plays themselves? The African Queen, Rope, A Streetcar Named Desire…right up to Fences, which came out just a few months ago? Plays are hardly the inferior of screenplays as content, and spoken dialogue, captured on film, is hardly the poor cousin of fisticuffs and fireballs, at least when there’s an adult in the room.

They knew this of course in the early 1950s, when this film happens to be set. Allen makes the aesthetics of his film match the period in which the story is laid. Need there be any more justification than that? The only reason I can see for somebody having a problem with it is that they don’t see it, and the only reason you wouldn’t see it is if your historical frame of reference is exceedingly small. So there’s that.

“STELLA!!!!!”

There are major echoes of Williams in the film, and as New Orleans is Williams’ muse in Streetcar, Coney Island is Allen’s muse in Wonder Wheel. Allen grew up in Brighton Beach, right next door, and the whole thing is baked in nostalgia for that time and place. He’d given a famous one-joke nod to Coney in Annie Hall; and he transplanted it to Rockaway beach in Radio Days, but here he dives full-on into the symbolically fraught waters of Coney. It’s not autobiography, though. At the time at which the film is set, Allen was already a professional comedy writer. He set it at a time when, much like Winslet’s character, Coney Island is just beginning to be past its prime, lose its beauty, turning a little seedy and even dangerous. Which is true of the theatre of the time, as well! No longer glamorous, but becoming realistic, tawdry, sensational, even ugly.

Winslet does terrific work in the film. Comparisons with Cate Blanchett’s work in Blue Jasmine are inevitable, but it’s a bit of apples and oranges. Winslet’s performance has none of the harrowing pyrotechnics Blanchett brought to the latter film, but neither are they called for. Winslet’s down-at-the-heels waitress is dreamy, brooding, stewing in her own juices. The real comparison to be made is to her previous performance in Todd Haynes’ 2011 Mildred Pierce remake, surely why Allen cast her here.

The performance is controlled and colorful, seemingly straight-jacketed throughout until she finally unleases the cuckoo in the film’s climactic scene. It reveals a great deal of thought and a great deal of skill and all on Winslet’s part.

Now she cray

There are moments where I feel there are notes of comedy she might have hit (Blanchett most certainly would have noticed those and gone for them) but Winslet is not that kind of actress. She is serious, and here she is deadly serious. (The closest we get to comedy is when she scolds her pyromaniac ten year old for lighting fires all over the place. It’s dark comedy but it’s funny).

Unfairly, Jim Belushi never gets any respect in this world, and I think he’s great. This film may contain his best performance, a schmo who’s in a lot of pain, the kind of characters Karl Malden and Eli Wallach used to play.

The weakest cast member without a doubt is Timberlake, and this may ultimately be the film’s undoing. His performance is so vacant, superficial, and artless that his scene partners have little to work with. He seems less like an actor playing his character, than if you just pulled a random lifeguard off the beach and stuck him in the movie to move from mark to mark like a trained horse. If a skilled actor had been in the role, people might have paid more attention to this movie and taken it much more seriously. He was clearly hired just for box office value, and look how that worked out.

Lastly we come to the location itself. The film gives us, to use Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s expression, “A Coney Island of the Mind”, lovingly and ingeniously assembled by Santo Loquasto with a combination of CGI and clever set dressings on location in Coney (including the Freak Bar at our beloved Coney Island USA — you should see the film just for that). And the clam house where Winslet and Temple work is totally Ruby’s Bar and Grill on the boardwalk. On top of this, it’s gorgeously shot by Vittorio Storaro as though through a summery, golden haze of nostalgia mixed with fog, again evoking all those Hollywood Williams and Inge adaptations of the ’50s. It’s a peek at Coney (real or imagined) we seldom get to see on film, as it was not exactly the heyday of the amusement park, which is kind of the point.

This being Coney, I was interested to note that Allen didn’t trot out another of his by now hoary, redundant cliches, a trip by his main character to a Reader & Adviser. But front and center is the Wonder Wheel itself…the wheel of destiny, inexorably turning. You got on this thing a while back for a ride. You can’t just get off any time you like — you gotta go where it takes you.

Brief epilogue about Allen’s work in general. The repetition really started to bug me years ago: the title sequences in all his films with the same fonts, the jazz music on the sound track. But something about THIS movie, Wonder Wheel clicked, made me suddenly “get” where he’s coming from, what his body of work is about. And working on this blog has helped me find my way to this place. Consider, if you will, Allen’s frame of reference. He grew up on a diet of B movies, radio and early television. B movies, much like radio and TV, were often done as series, whether they were comedies, like the Mexican Spitfire series, or crime dramas like Dick Tracy. Allen’s films, churned out with factory-like regularity, I think, are meant to be taken in that spirit, with that as the paradigm. The titles and the music are a brand — close in spirit, and even in detail, to the the credits at the top of a series. He is saying, “Here I am with another one!” And the continuity is him. The main character, whether his face is on camera or not, is Woody. The films are thus installments in a whole, not stand alone objects. If some of them are weaker, the entire framework holds up. Another paradigm that seems to work: they are like magazine stories. Hollywood used to be about adapting such stories into films. When you put such stories in a collection you may get a strong book, even if the tales have a range in quality. Themes emerge. At 82 years old, Woody Allen is getting near the end of his ride on the Wonder Wheel. It makes a great deal of sense for him to revisit the place where he grew up, and to examine a lifetime tension between the harshness of reality and the desire for escape. And if you look at that and all you got is, “Ho hum, not his best”, I know a pier you can jump off of: