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Is Woody Allen’s Wheel a Wonder?

December 4, 2017

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2017 must be the most Wonder-full year ever at the movies. We’ve already seen Wonder Woman, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Wonderstruck, and just plain Wonder. And now comes Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel. Sadly, there’s nothing wonderful about it.

“Spare me the bad drama,” Kate Winslet’s 1950s Coney Island waitress whines to her lifeguard lover (Justin Timberlake) late in the film. Much too late. The old joke about Woody is that filmgoers liked his “early, funny stuff” better than his more dramatic late-career work. With Wonder Wheel, Woody has officially come full circle, but not in a good way. It’s a drama that’s unintentionally hysterical. It’s kitsch. It’s camp. Mostly, it’s crap.

The Woodman, who just turned 82, has spent the last decade living a peripatetic cinematic existence, hopping from country to country (England! Spain! Italy!) where his films — and his morals — are judged more favorably than in the U.S. of A. Even his American-set films have largely avoided his native New York City, choosing locales like San Francisco (Blue Jasmine), Newport (Irrational Man) and good old Hollywood (Cafe Society).

Wonder Wheel marks his most NYC-centric film in years, yet it feels like it was made by a tourist. Part of that problem is due to the casting. None of the film’s four leads feels like a true Noo Yawker, muchless an Ike-era Brooklynite. Timberlake is way too vanilla to come off as a Greenwich Village-dwelling grad student; you can take the boy bander out of the Mickey Mouse Club, but you can’t take the Mickey Mouse Club out of the boy bander. For his female lead, Woody cast the wrong Kate, er, Cate. Blanchett was able to make the overheated dialogue of Blue Jasmine sound natural; Winslet always seems like she’s Acting, and not just because her character is literally a drama queen, a frustrated former actress who says she’s not really a waitress, she’s just playing a role. Her lines don’t just telegraph her emotional state; they telecast it (e.g. “I’m unraveling,” “I’m consumed with jealousy!”).

Another Brit, Juno Temple, does a toned-down version of the kewpie molls played by Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite and Jennifer Tilly in Bullets Over Broadway. As her father, Jim Belushi attempts a Brooklyn accent, but his mumblemouth delivery comes straight out of Chicago. One wonders what James Gandolfini could’ve done with this role, an alcoholic merry-go-round operator in a (literal) wifebeater, especially when three of his fellow Sopranos alums — Steven Schirripa, Tony Sirico and Max Casella — show up briefly and bring the film the shot of verisimilitude it desperately needs. The same holds true for David Krumholtz as a Jewish philosophy student — if only he had been cast in Timberlake’s role, the film might have genuinely been in sync!

Given the #MeToo moment we’re living in, there probably couldn’t be a worse time to put out a Woody flick, especially one distributed by Amazon, whose studio chief, Roy Price, stepped down amid sexual-harassment allegations. It doesn’t help that Woody uses the film to plead his own case. Winslet’s character bemoans what a cold world we would live in without forgiveness, and Timberlake is saddled with the unfortunate line, “The heart has its own hieroglyphics,” echoing Woody’s own “The heart wants what it wants” re: Soon-Yi.

Wonder Wheel doesn’t just feel fake — it looks fake, with supersaturated colors from cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Dick Tracy, Reds, Apocalypse Now) and a self-conscious staginess. It’s also the first Woody movie to use extensive CGI, a cheaper way to recreate period detail. One can only hope Woody’s next film (his 50th!), A Rainy Day in New York, feels less like it was generated by a computer and more by a human being with a beating heart.

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