Saturday, January 20, 2018

Going in Circles: Woody Allen's Wonder Wheel

Justin Timberlake and Kate Winslet in Woody Allen's Wonder Wheel 

It's been decades since Woody Allen was the comic voice of the shaggy and diminutive outsider. In those first seventies films (Bananas, Love and Death, Sleeper), Allen not only cleverly tweaked the WASP stereotypes that came to define masculinity and femininity; he also satirized them as role models. The eager audiences who strongly welcomed Allen's verbal and physical slapstick – a whirling affront to cultural and sexual repression – also came to relax around their own neurosis and self-doubt. Describing him as "the first post-Freudian movie comedian," critic Pauline Kael said that Allen was "the first to use his awareness of his own sexual insecurities as the basis for his humor, and when he turned psychodrama into comedy he seemed to speak – to joke – for all of us." But all of that changed once he won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director with Annie Hall in 1978. The massive success of that seminal comedy about neurosis found Woody Allen no longer perched on the outside of mainstream culture. Once accepted by the insiders of Hollywood (for a film that was partly a poison-pen letter to L.A.), he seemed to feel that he had to earn his keep in the Insider's Club. Now viewing making comedy as something akin to embracing the Golden Calf, Allen began to strive for seriousness and started emulating those dramatic artists he worshiped as his betters.

Distrusting his greatest gift – his comic voice – Allen even told Newsweek shortly after the success of Annie Hall that comedy belonged at "the children's table." He quickly started remaking his career doing earnest adult dramas cured in the spirit of Ingmar Bergman (Interiors, Another Woman), Henrik Ibsen (September), Federico Fellini (Stardust Memories), Fritz Lang (Shadows and Fog), Charlie Chaplin (Manhattan) and Arthur Miller (Crimes and Misdemeanors). Other pictures that came later were empty imitations of American classics like A Place in the Sun (Match Point) and A Streetcar Named Desire (Blue Jasmine). Sometimes he'd come through with an inspired idea. When he invoked the early days of Kaufman and Hart (Bullets Over Broadway), or drew lovingly on the New Wave spirit of Truffaut's Jules and Jim (Vicky Christina Barcelona), Allen's comic muse lifted those pictures beyond being merely adoring tributes. But what was missing from most of the other movies was his own voice, while he seemed to take refuge in some idolized past. (His lovely and successful 2011 comedy, Midnight in Paris, was a critique of finding and welcoming such sanctuary. Ultimately, it was about learning to live in the present.)  

Many of his hardcore fans who have held close to him all these years – even if they condemned his controversial personal life – hardly notice the dramatic change in his films and so continue to attend them zealously. Perhaps they are searching for that same haven Allen seeks as they get older. If so, they will likely be thrilled by his latest movie, Wonder Wheel, which not only goes over the same old familiar ground of borrowing ideas from Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, but adds some other familiar Broadway voices to the mix like Clifford Odets and William Inge. The result remains the same. The story he creates from these sources is neither effective nor in a voice that truly makes the material his own. 

Jim Belushi and Kate Winslet

Set in the fifties at Coney Island, Wonder Wheel is yet another pastiche that feels contrived right from the start. Lifeguard Mickey Rubin (Justin Timberlake), a former sailor and current graduate student, passionately talks about his goal of writing great dramas with larger-than-life characters – and announces that dream right to the camera. Drawing on a familiar old-fashioned dramatic device doesn't so much diminish Timberlake's authenticity as a character (he actually gives a good, engaging performance as Mickey), but it sets us up too conveniently for the overheated material to come. The characters are not so much larger than life as barely lifted off the page and they never get to breathe their own air. Ginny (Kate Winslet) is a waitress at a clam house who hates living in her claustrophobic confines above a shooting gallery with her working-class bruiser husband Humpty (Jim Belushi). A recovering alcoholic who runs the merry-go-round, Humpty  has an estranged daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), from a previous marriage who drops in unannounced. On the run from her gangster husband, Carolina brings turbulence to the already teaming household – Ginny is having an affair with Mickey, whose talk of writing and theatre awakens in her a pining for her former life as an actress before meeting Humpty. But when Carolina arrives on the scene, Mickey is also immediately smitten with her, which draws jealous and murderous rage from Ginny.

What defeats Wonder Wheel pretty much from the start is that while Allen recreates the mechanics of plays like those written by Odets and Inge, he doesn't provide the dramatic underpinnings that would help you understand why the characters speak such stylized dialogue. Their heated patter sounds blatantly artificial. Even Ginny and Humpty's home feels like a stage set that's been unceremoniously plopped on the roof of an amusement park. Winslet plays Ginny's frustrations with a fevered dedication, but since the depths of her character have been removed from the material, her dogged tenacity stays on the surface and simply wears you down. When Cate Blanchett did her variation of Blanche DuBois in Blue Jasmine, she miraculously found those depths by creating a suspended lyricism in her line readings. She added neurotic shadings that were compelling though in doing so she often came in conflict with Allen's direction of his own material. Jim Belushi is no more interesting as Humpty than Andrew Dice Clay was as the working-class husband of Sally Hawkins in Blue Jasmine. They both get buried under the weight of heavy-spirited clichés. Ginny's young son from her previous marriage, Ritchie (Jack Gore), who is a budding arsonist ,doesn't even get to be a cliché – he's a clunking metaphor.

While everyone else is chained to the stumps of the story, Juno Temple brings a comic lightness to Carolina that matches up perfectly with Timberlake's boyish enthusiasm. Their chemistry – especially in a lovely idyll in the car during a rainstorm – makes you wish the film had actually been about how the love of art and literature stir romantic and erotic longings in two adult innocents. But there's nothing innocent about Wonder Wheel. Everything feels shopworn and counterfeit. Even the gorgeous and colourful cinematography by wizard Vittorio Storaro does little to bring the artifice of the story to life. What he unwittingly does is emphasize the fakery of the whole enterprise. Instead of evoking the poetic richness of his work in Bernardo Bertolucci's sumptuous The Conformist, Storaro's lighting of Wonder Wheel comes across as the bastard sequel to his camera work in Francis Coppola's stillborn musical One From the Heart

It may be that Woody Allen has lost touch with his own appetite for art and literature because in Wonder Wheel he only recreates the surface without the substance. (Who can forget how substantial his outrageously funny parody of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire was in Sleeper when Diane Keaton turns into Brando's Stanley Kowalski to recreate a primal scene from the Woody Allen's character's childhood?) There's no zest anywhere in this patchwork melodrama and the wheels aren't taking us anywhere interesting. Like the carny ride the film is named after, Wonder Wheel only goes around in circles. 

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Talking Out of Turn: A Collection of Reviews, Interviews and Remembrances currently being assembled on Blogger.

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