Wonder Wheel, the bad new film starring Kate Winslet, Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple and Jim Belushi, was written and directed by Woody Allen, a known sexual assaulter. Allen writes and directs a new movie every year — he is as prolific an artist as any Hollywood has produced — and does so with the happy participation of A-list stars. These are the same folks who have condemned Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Bret Ratner and other prominent figures in the world of entertainment for sexual misconduct over the years.
But Allen has been spared.
As recounted in a recent column by Allen's daughter Dylan Farrow, who has relentlessly and unchangingly testified about her abuse at the hands of her father, Allen's public relations and legal team have so thoroughly obfuscated the story that few know the simple details: Allen engaged in a pattern of inappropriate sexual behavior with his young daughter.
The goal of the PR machine, Farrow argues, has been to create a fog in which the veracity of the allegations against Allen seem suspect. (They are not.) Farrow quotes multiple actors, including Wonder Wheel's own Kate Winslet, juxtaposing their comments about Weinstein with comments about Allen. It's striking to read. That column, from the L.A. Times, is called: "Why Has the #MeToo Revolution Spared Woody Allen?"
In any case, Allen has made a very bad movie called Wonder Wheel. It opens at theaters areawide on Friday.
Featuring both Allen's trademark wit and his more recent trademark first-draft carelessness, the big takeaway from Wonder Wheel is that it is at times almost impossible to watch. It tells the story of a love affair on Coney Island between a melancholy former actress, Ginny, (Kate Winslet) and Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a lifeguard who aspires to be a famous playwright.
Ginny is unhappily married to Humpty (Jim Belushi), a lately sober carousel operator. Humpty is the father of Carolina (Juno Temple), a radiant young woman who has been "marked" by the mob. She flees to her father's apartment after years of estrangement: Humpty had cut ties when Carolina married her high school sweetheart, a known gangster. Ginny's son Richie, from her first marriage, is a pyromaniac who's getting into trouble at school and getting more criminally adventurous to boot.
All of this material is conveyed in one or two loud, ambling expository scenes in Humpty and Ginny's apartment overlooking the amusement park in the shadow and twinkle of the eponymous Ferris wheel. Much of the film takes place here, and it often feels like we're watching a rehearsal for a college play in which, as an exercise, the actors had been encouraged to improvise. The film's bizarre lighting strengthens the "is this a student script?" sensation.
The color palette is confusing and constantly changing from the start. The opening shot is a bright, wide angle of a popular beach. It's got all the yellows and reds of a midcentury Coca-Cola ad and is — I don't mind admitting — pretty visually impressive. Justin Timberlake begins his voiceover, warning us of the melodrama to follow, and there's almost a Where's Waldo? feel as you try to pick out Timberlake from the crowd. But as the film progresses, the ambient light is suffused with gray in the rain, green in the twilight, blue in the night, and red in moments of Ginny's despair. This is either an intentional effect (the coloring as a reflection of Ginny's mood?) or a big post-production mistake. I was never not distracted by it.
The Ginny-Mickey romance is, at least, credible in its broad strokes. Mickey likes Ginny mostly for the fact that her life is so explosive with drama and tragedy. He sees her, in part, as material. Ginny sees Mickey as an escape valve. She envisions herself as the star of his plays. But, predictably, Mickey meets Carolina and becomes smitten with her. Then Ginny goes off the rails. Winslet is a phenomenal actress with enormous range, but her performance here continually clashes with Allen's script.
True to its word, the whole thing's an embittered, melodramatic gabfest. But telling an audience at the outset that a story will be melodramatic doesn't get one off the hook. Least of all known sexual assaulter Woody Allen. This sucks. And be on the lookout for the jaunty "Coney Island" song that plays about 2,000 times throughout. If you don't want to hammer your teeth in by its final appearance, I'll buy you a hot dog.