To steal one of the writer/director’s old jokes, Woody Allen’s latter-day movies can be divided into two categories: the horrible and the miserable. His newest, Wonder Wheel, has the unprecedented distinction of being both—it’s a toothless, slipshod reshuffling of Allen’s usual lazy tropes (miserable) and an incontrovertible reminder of the appalling rumors that surround his personal life (horrible).
This particular cultural moment, with new sexual abuse and assault allegations exposed daily, seems to be the reacting agent that’s contaminated Allen’s legacy for good. He’s basically been half-assing it since the ’90s, with a few confoundingly good blips here and there (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris, and the misogynistic but compelling Blue Jasmine). But whatever flimsy charms Wonder Wheel possesses are so rickety that they end up being liabilities, like bad spokes on the famous Coney Island Ferris wheel from which the movie takes its name.
The movie’s 1950s setting might give one hope that Allen’s interested in nostalgically exploring his own childhood, as he did so appealingly in 1987’s Radio Days. Instead, Wonder Wheel plays like recycled outtakes, such as the central conceit of the story primarily taking place next door to a carnival ride (note the echoes of Annie Hall’s roller coaster). A key location—an apartment that’s almost entirely windows—allows for some halfway decent visuals, as the lights of the nearby Wonder Wheel shine blues and reds and ambers onto the characters’ faces, reflecting their inner moods. But this expressionist trick is handled sloppily and obviously, and the characters more often appear in unnatural shades of Oompa-Loompa.
Yes, you read that correctly: Woody Allen’s new movie has a man rejecting a woman for her much younger stepdaughter.
Ginny (Kate Winslet) waits tables in a clam house on the Coney Island boardwalk. Married to Humpty (Jim Belushi) and carrying on an affair with lifeguard Mickey (Justin Timberlake), Ginny expresses her malaise by complaining about constant headaches, and Allen has her gulping down aspirins in every scene as if this lends the character depth. When Humpty’s estranged daughter from his first marriage, Carolina (Juno Temple), enters the scene, she’s on the run from the mob, because of course she is. Mickey finds the imperiled Carolina a decided upgrade from tired, headache-y Ginny, who spirals out of control at the rejection.
In case that synopsis buried the lede, yes, you read that correctly: Woody Allen’s new movie has a man rejecting a woman for her much younger stepdaughter. I’m convinced, though, that Allen is oblivious to his script containing such revealing parallels to his own life. The movie is categorically uninterested in any type of introspection or exploration; it hoists up trite character types and then lets them limply dangle, a tactic that might work if Allen spiced it up with any of his trademark one-liners. He doesn’t. Instead, he lets his characters’ miserable fates unfold like wind-up toys marching off a table. As Mickey says, “It doesn’t take a Sherlock Holmes or Eugene O’Neill to plot this one out.” Even the soundtrack consists of a single rooty-toot ragtime number repeated about 50 times. I wish I were exaggerating.
Even if Allen wants us to pity poor Ginny, he exhibits, intentionally or not, a truly nasty attitude toward her—she’s pitiful in the worst sense of the word, a pathetic, barely drawn notion of a woman who’s been dealt a bad hand and plays it terribly. It doesn’t help that Winslet’s performance is awful (Timberlake’s is even worse), and while no one’s given much to work with, the whole cast just goes along with whatever Allen’s doing here.
You, however, don’t have to play a role in Wonder Wheel: You can, and should, skip it altogether. “But he’ll just make another movie next year, and the year after that,” you say. Not if people stop seeing them and producers stop paying for them, he won’t. If it wasn’t obvious before, Wonder Wheel makes it abundantly clear: It’s time to get off this ride.