Woody Allen was back in the news this past weekend, and it wasn’t because his latest film Wonder Wheel closed the 2017 edition of the New York Film Festival. Rather, he made some headlines when the BBC reported his comments on the emerging litany of sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein, who produced some of Allen’s past films. While Allen said that the situation “very, very sad and tragic for those poor women that had to go through that,” he also called it “sad for Harvey that [his] life is so messed up.” Allen, of course, has faced allegations of his own – that he molested his daughter Dylan when she was a child – so some ill-considered remarks got even more attention than they might have otherwise. (Allen later clarified to Variety that “when I said I felt sad for Harvey Weinstein I thought it was clear the meaning was because he is a sad, sick man.” But frankly, it’s hard to imagine any comment from Allen on this matter engendering anything milder than irritation.)
Writing about Woody Allen has become something of a minefield in recent years, not because the allegations about his crimes are recent – they date back to 1992 – but because there is such a long, terrible history of silence about these matters that has only recent begun to change. Yet this particular case cannot expect any real resolution, and still a new Allen movie appears annually, courtesy of various backers who take up his occasionally profitable cause (strangely, his post-2000 career has included some of his biggest hits) for reasons of prestige, tradition, whatever.
That’s a lot of baggage for a late-period Woody Allen movie to bear. As so many have pointed out, much of his recent work feels like rough drafts put to camera with the kind of creaky professionalism that assures his movies are almost always well-made from a technical perspective but rarely pop with the kind of distinction that marks Annie Hall, Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Everyone Says I Love You, or any number of other Allen classics. Even some of his good or underrated late-period efforts later become self-cannibalized by the weaker stuff.
Wonder Wheel, for example, very much resembles a reheated Blue Jasmine, for which Cate Blanchett won a Best Actress Oscar as a society woman adrift when her rich husband is sent to prison for financial crimes. Wonder Wheel’s Ginny (Kate Winslet) is unraveling closer to the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum. She lives in Coney Island in the 1950s, in full view of the famous Ferris wheel of the title, working as a waitress as a clam shack, a long-suffering wife of the vaguely brutish Humpty (James Belushi), and the mother of a movie-obsessed elementary-school student who keeps starting fires and staring creepily into the flames. Ginny once dreamed of becoming an actress, one of many on-the-nose details that marks Wonder Wheel as self-consciously theatrical. Ginny and Humpty’s home looks like an elaborate stage set, centering on a large, window-heavy main room that makes them look like a boardwalk exhibit, and Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a lifeguard who takes up with Ginny, has aspirations to write great plays (clearly stated, as so many Allen characters announce their hopes, dreams, and lack of subtleties). Though supporting characters litter the film, the main ones form a play-like quartet: Winslet, Belushi, Timberlake, and Juno Temple as Carolina, Humpty’s estranged daughter from a previous marriage, who comes home on the run from her gangster husband.
Ginny looks to her affair with Mickey as an escape hatch from a life of waitressing and cajoling the alcoholic Humpty into not resuming his drinking. So when Mickey starts to develop eyes for Carolina (awkwardly and explicitly stated, as so many Allen characters talk about their supposedly hidden desires out loud), Ginny can see another dream start to disintegrate in front of her. Some of this is interesting, particularly the fact that Mickey would have been the lead character in so many other Woody Allen movies, enamored as he is of the freshman-year classics that Allen thinks of as constituting an intellectual background. Here, Mickey serves as a direct-to-the-camera narrator (as so many Allen characters… you get the picture), but his earnest evocations of “great tragic plays where the protagonist gets crushed by [their] own flaws” come off as callow. Whether this is the intentional result of Timberlake playing him or not, it turns out to be a smart bit of casting. The singer-actor is great at making callowness feel temporarily charming – and at making charm sometimes feel a little callow. He’s the perfect failure of a way out for Ginny.