Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Review: Woody Allen's "Wonder Wheel" is minor-key Allen, even with the shocking ending

Wonder Wheel Review

Woody Allen is one of my all time favorite filmmakers. Say what you will about his personal life, but that’s a different conversation for a different day. I responded early to the rhythms of his style and storytelling and very few filmmakers have had such a profound influence on me. Yes, not everything he makes is great, but nobody working in Hollywood has a perfect resume. Yes, it can be argued that he makes the same the movie over and over again. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Does he use the same themes over and over again? I would agree with that. But if you really over-analyzed the careers of Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, J.J. Abrams, and Spike Lee, legendary filmmakers have made entire careers out of the same themes. Some actors avoid typecasting while others embrace it. So, to harp on Allen for using the same themes seems a tad unfair. I have to also say that I admire a guy who can churn out a new movie every year, that’s impressive for an eighty-two-year-old man.

Depending on how many Woody Allen movies you’ve seen, and how much you’ve tolerated his style will greatly impact what you think of “Wonder Wheel,” his new film starring Kate Winslet, Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple and Jim Belushi. Allen uses many of the tricks of his old bag, and at first, it feels like your typical Woody Allen film. Part of the reason I don’t mind that Allen has recycled the same themes is how he’s been able to redefine them with each new film. “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan,” “Broadway Danny Rose,” “Shadows and Fog,” “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Small Time Crooks” are just some examples off the top of my head that deal with the typical Woody Allen themes; cheating, divorce, family drama, forbidden romance, unachieved life goals, all under a New York backdrop. But if you were to binge those movies, they won’t feel like the same movie, story-wise. He’s usually really good about taking familiar themes and molding them into something unrecognizable.

Sometimes though, his movies just go through his familiar motions to no avail. For much of “Wonder Wheel’s” running time, this feels like Woody Allen-light. Kate Winslet plays Ginny. She’s an inspiring actress whose career went nowhere. (get it?) She’s married to Humpty (Belushi) and her married life in unsatisfying (get it?) Ginny’s first marriage failed because she cheated on her spouse, (get it?) and her son from her first marriage lives with Humpty and his daughter from his first marriage, Carolina (Temple). One day, walking on the beach, Ginny meets Mickey Rubin (Timberlake) a lifeguard. Both of them become attracted to each other, despite Ginny being much older than Mickey and already married. No matter, Mickey really likes her and an affair ensues. True Woody Allen fans probably aren’t surprised by any of this, they probably won’t be surprised the moment Mickey coincidentally meets Carolina, he falls for her too!

For much of the running time, “Wonder Wheel” plays like a typical, yet uninspired Allen film. He seems go in circles as Ginny realizes Carolina likes Mickey, and the all-too-familiar family arguments Allen usually writes come into play. I will admit there were moments that made me laugh out-loud. The film is set in 1950’s New York City and that provides for some catchy music, unique costumes and a fun style. The cinematography by Vittorio Storaro creates a bright, dreamy 1950’s Coney Island, which fits the mood perfectly. What also makes this stretch of the film bearable is just how well Allen’s actors are. This is some of the best character work by Winslet that I’ve seen in a while and that’s saying something since she’s always strong. Justin Timberlake is really funny here, and his narration of events fits the style of the film well. Jim Belushi provides some good laughs and I generally liked his work here. Juno Temple has played characters like this before, but that doesn’t mean that she’s bad at it.

Near the end of the film, the movie takes a dark turn. Some may think the film picks up with an ending nobody saw coming. If you’re a seasoned Allen fan, this ending won’t surprise you. Those who saw and enjoyed “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Match Point” and “Cassandra’s Dream” probably won’t be phased. Allen's movies have taken a dark turn before, his characters have sold their souls to The Devil before. For me, “Wonder Wheel” feels like Woody Allen on auto-pilot, even with the dramatic shift in tone right at the end. I think the actors sell it well enough, so I didn’t hate the ending, nor did I hate the experience. I just think Allen is better than this. Even when making one new movie a year, he’s still capable of standing in one spot, stuck in park when he’s ready to accelerate. “Wonder Wheel” is one of those movies.

In recent years, Woody Allen has gone up and down with the quality of his films. Last year’s “Café Society” wasn’t a film I reviewed for the site last year, but I did enjoy it once I caught up with it and I liked it much better than “Irrational Man” and “Magic In The Moonlight” the two years prior. I loved “Blue Jasmine,” which I thought made up for “To Rome With Love” before it. Still, my favorite Woody Allen film of the 2010’s so far is easily “Midnight In Paris” and I think perhaps Allen should make another high-concept comedy set in Europe. For now, “Wonder Wheel” maybe minor key Allen, but he somehow made most of it work. He’ll bump back up again, maybe next year, maybe the year after.


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