I have long been a fan of Woody Allen’s films and — I must admit — an apologist for his lesser works. I’ve always managed to find a nugget of value in even his shoddier films, an amount of entertainment or at least a few scenes or jokes that stuck with me. But he’s very much a filmmaker far past his prime, who’s frankly making (or perhaps made) too many films. His yearly release means throwing a lot of macaroni against the fridge — sometimes it’ll stick, but a lot of times, it won’t. This hit me pretty square with last year’s Cafe Society, the first Allen movie I just couldn’t finish watching due to its rambling, seemingly pointless nature.
Allen’s latest, Wonder Wheel, is at least watchable (I mean, I finished it, if nothing more), though still very minor in the scheme of things. It’s little more than half-baked melodrama, though that’s acknowledged in Mickey’s (Justin Timberlake) opening monologue. This is basically an exercise in Allen channeling Eugene O’Neill, fashioning a family soap opera on top of pathos, anxiety and a touch of tragedy and it’s all played that way, too. Despite Vittorio Storaro’s colorful photography and a camera that moves around a good bit for an Allen movie, there’s still something that feels a bit too stagebound about it all.
The biggest contributor is the overcooked performances that feel as if they’re from a stage production. Everyone’s playing to the back row. While it fits the mood of the film and its 1950s Coney Island vibe — or at least, what someone might nostalgically view of ’50s Coney Island as being — it’s not a particularly natural-feeling film, and it’s not an Allen comedy. So what’s left is the melodrama, which isn’t quite enough (or entertaining enough) to hold up the film on its own.
The film follows Ginny, a failed actress who works at a Coney Island restaurant, living with her husband, Humpty (Jim Belushi), and her pyromaniac son (Jack Gore). Thrown into the mix is Humpty’s daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) — who’s on the run from her mob boss husband — and Mickey, a lifeguard with romantic aspirations of becoming a playwright and who falls into an affair with Ginny. Things grow from this in convoluted, yet none too surprising ways, all for maximum melodrama.
As a whole, it all works, at least from the standpoint of being watchable. But the tenor and the tone of the film (such as the overacting) is something that takes a bit of getting used to, or an amount of openness toward. Basically, it’s another Woody Allen film for the die-hard Woody Allen fan, the latest in a long line that’s lasted a few years now, and the type of moviegoer I’m not sure exists in great numbers these days. Rated PG-13 for thematic content including some sexuality, language and smoking. Now playing at Grail Moviehouse.