Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel, the highly anticipated closing-night presentation of the 55th New York Film Festival, opens with Justin Timberlake as a 1950s Coney Island lifeguard named “Mickey Rubin” (Irish? Jewish? Baptist like Timberlake?) addressing the camera, explaining that he wants to be a major American dramatist like Eugene O’Neill and suggesting the story that follows (in which he’s a participant) will be a larger-than-life melodrama with strong characters and metaphors. Watching the rest of the movie, I wondered if Allen had discovered the script in an old file cabinet (maybe meant as a play?) and appended that meta intro to account for how obvious and old-hat the rest of it is. Probably a good strategy.
Kate Winslet, with carefully bedraggled hair, plays Ginny, the suffering ex-actress wife of on-and-off-the-wagon carousel operator “Humpty” (James Belushi). She’s working as a waitress at Ruby’s Clam House on the boardwalk, but she later tells Mickey (with whom she’s having an affair) that she’s not really a waitress — she’s “playing a waitress,” a role in a life that will presumably be full of them. Her husband has accused her of reading too many movie magazines, and we can infer that the Wonder Wheel seen through the window of their apartment is one of those metaphors Mickey spoke of, representing Ginny’s longing for transcendence. In that, she’s like the wife played by Mia Farrow in The Purple Rose of Cairo, only louder and given to long monologues.
Winslet is really Going for It. Her Ginny sinned in her own eyes (she cheated on her first husband, a jazz drummer) and turned to Humpty (Jesus, that name) for security for her and her little son. Her desperation is so naked it’s surprising the other characters haven’t already had her committed. Timberlake’s Mickey says that when he saw her walking on the beach, her body language signaled vulnerability. (He talks in clichés, which is meant to be callow but endearing.) In one scene, she tells a close friend (who has just appeared and is never seen again) about her doubts and jealousy, and Winslet never once makes eye contact with the poor bit actress sitting beside her. She’s in a world of her own, her and that Wonder Wheel.
Have I mentioned that the family’s apartment is in back of that wheel? Shades of Alvy Singer growing up under the rollercoaster. It’s supposed to be a shabby place, but I loved the open plan and cook’s kitchen. I want that kitchen. Production designer Santo Loquasto has given the place his theatrical all. The quarters become extra tense when Carolina (Juno Temple), the 26-year-old estranged daughter of Humpty (that name!) from his first marriage, pleads for shelter. Colleagues of her mobster ex are looking for her, on account of her knowing “where the bodies are buried.” Seeking invisibility, Carolina takes a waitressing job beside Ginny at Ruby’s Clam Shack, because mobsters or their informers would never go to popular bars in the middle of the Coney Island boardwalk. Safe as houses.
The dramatics begin in earnest when Mickey meets Carolina, and for some peculiar reason, prefers the blonde-ringleted 26-year-old to the increasingly crazed 40-year-old. Eyes shining, Mickey gives Carolina a book about Hamlet and Oedipus and their tragic flaws. He talks a lot about tragic flaws, while admitting that Fate can play a role. He really is an ass. But nothing in Allen’s dramaturgy suggests that Allen holds very different ideas. Allen might have another stand-in in the little redheaded pyromaniac son, who ends the picture setting yet another fire. The fires might be a metaphor for anger over the neglect of parents and/or the universe. Mickey did say metaphors, meaning at least two.
Juno is an understated but soulful actress, but Timberlake is another of those Allen actors who slips into a Woody imitation. The only ones who’ve kept their own voices have been Owen Wilson, who always sounds like a stoner, and Joaquin Phoenix, a slurry Method mumbler. I wasn’t eager to see Belushi — he tends to be monotonous — but as Humpty (that name!) he has bullying power.
Did Allen ask his cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, to pretend it was a Bertolucci movie? The colors are saturated, with oranges so intense that this film should have been called Tangerine. In Winslet’s big monologue, the lighting goes from normal to an orange bath to normal again, like in the theater. It’s lovely but over-the-top. So are Winslet’s last scenes. After Ginny’s good speech about “playing a waitress,” why didn’t Allen build on her insight into the difference between the roles she plays and her essence? How can she be a truly tragic character when she behaves in the end exactly the way we predict she will?
Perhaps it’s that Allen doesn’t think people can really transcend anything ever. He doesn’t have a tragic writer’s temperament. In Wonder Wheel, Ginny complains constantly of migraines — a metaphor for existential pain — and says things like, “My heart is pounding with jealousy.” Tragic plaints seem more like the Higher Kvetching.