Monday, 18 December 2017

Wonder Wheel (2017) - Movie Review
The plot: Marked woman Carolina (Juno Temple), after leaving her mob husband, returns to Coney Island to be with her father Humpty Rannell (Jim Belushi), his wife Ginny (Kate Winslet) and her son Richie (Jack Gore). At the same time, Ginny starts an extra-marital affair with lifeguard Mickey (Justin Timberlake), giving her a newfound sense of happiness about her life. However, that happiness may be short-lived once he catches the eye of Carolina, and Ginny’s mental state is about to take a turn for the worst.


As per Woody Allen’s usual trappings, the cast is full of big names. Hell, even considering Justin Timberlake’s inclusion here, this cast list is pretty enticing… on paper. In reality, it comes off like no one here has ever acted in a feature-length production before. Timberlake is trying and failing miserably to maintain that Brooklyn accent and his delivery always sounds off because of it. Temple barely even has a character to work with, playing what can charitably be called a cheerleader for Mickey, and it puts a dent in her otherwise pretty solid filmography. Belushi probably gets across the emotion of his character the best out of everyone here, but since he’s still paired up with some incredibly wonky co-stars, it feels like he’s putting in too much effort than is necessary.
And then there’s Kate Winslet, who might give the worst performance of the lot, if not of any film I’ve seen her in. While aided by how she’s given the most well-defined character to play with, her own attempt at a Brooklyn accent combined with how stiff and unnatural she is in virtually every scene makes for a central character that needs to be pulled out of the circle. To be fair, though, she did give the single best line of the film all the gusto possible in a scene between her and Temple about how much she isn’t looking forward to turning 40.

The visuals here are both stylised and too garish for their own good. Aside from veteran cinematographer Vittori Storaro (Apocalypse Now, Dick Tracy, CafĂ© Society) giving a good amount of scope and grandeur to 1950’s Coney Island, the rest of it feels like a stage play that inexplicably was released to cinemas. The main set of the film, that being the Rannells’ house, is about as much of a set as it is possible for a film to get without just peeking into the backstage. I get that cinema has its origins in the world of theatre and there’s a lot of overlap between them, but surely, getting a connection between the two across could have been done better than this.
But that is ultimately a minor point compared to the far more glaring visual problem: The colour palette. Now, admittedly, there’s a decent idea behind what prominent colours we get through the lighting. The way Allen and Storaro segment off the lighting to make two halves of a single house look like literal night and day is an interesting approach, highlighting how Ginny’s affair ended up bringing some colour back into her life. However, there’s a problem with the choice of colour, specifically the only two that get used: Light blue and bright orange. During certain conversations on-screen, the film switches between solid blocks of these two colours depending on the mood of the conversation, usually going darker the worse things turn out for Ginny. However, that contrast between blue (almost blue-grey at times) and orange? A lot of films nowadays use that same trick. They’re distinct from each other and pop when put side-by-side; even Jurassic World used this trick and it’s about as unsubtle here as it was there.

During the first of many bits of on-screen narration from Mickey, the audience is told point-blank that this is a melodrama. This becomes more evident when we see how high-strung most of the main characters are, letting their emotional instinct take the driver’s seat for the most part. However, that’s not the problem. Melodrama can work really damn well if the overblown emotions and events shown actually connect with the audience. The acting may make that task difficult, but the writing flat-out makes it impossible. Outside of Ginny, these aren’t actually characters: They’re megaphones on legs, just roaring at each other throughout the film, and even when things do go quiet, nothing meaningful gets channelled either.
It’s ostensibly a love story between Ginny, Mickey and Carolina, with something about the Mafia wanting Carolina dead and this weird subplot about Richie who keeps setting fire to things. Those last two bits probably make the film sound a lot more interesting than it is because not only are they barely elaborated on, but the main drama that connects them? I see no reason to care about characters who are either this flat or this atrociously unlikeable.

Which brings us to Ginny, her place in the story, and what ultimately turns this from an annoying film into something truly heinous. Reading through the synopsis above, and remembering that this is a film by Woody Allen, I’m fairly certain that some of the details will sound… familiar. Add to that how Mickey is characterised, being this artistic and poetic playwright who gets fawned over by Carolina because he’s just so dreamy and good God, this guy couldn’t be a bigger stand-in for Allen if he tried. Even down to directly addressing the audience, a familiar trick in Allen’s earlier work. Now, that comparison isn’t what bothers me. If this indeed is meant to be a dramatisation of what happened between him, Mia Farrow and Soon-Yi Previn, I wouldn’t have an issue with it. After all, taking inspiration from personal events can lead to some damn good cinema; it’s one of the reasons why I like Kevin Smith as much as I do. However, it’s how he presents that story that makes me cringe.

Ginny, to put it simply, is an awful person, characterised as being about as callous, borderline-psychotic and just plain broken as a person can get while staying in one piece. She is also depicted as being a victim of domestic violence at the hands of Humpty, and it’s about here that things start to go south. Way south. To the 9th circle. With how Mickey keeps being fawned over by both Ginny and Carolina, Carolina’s non-existent character beyond that (and being described as having “been around the block” in one of many uncomfortable moments), and Ginny being portrayed as the biggest evil in that triangle, it feels like Woody Allen is trying to give his own perspective on what happened in his own way. There’s even a thinly-veiled reference to it, with how Ginny accuses Humpty of an “unnatural attachment” to Carolina… which is framed as her being jealous and petty. 
I won’t claim to really have an opinion regarding the allegations against Woody Allen. I haven’t read up nearly enough on them and I don’t much care to. However, knowing the year we’ve had regarding people trying to excuse their own behaviour, how easily one-to-one allegories can be made with this story and how specific parts of that allegory are framed, this reads like someone trying desperately to give “their own take” on certain unsavoury accusations. And trying to paint the other party as the real problem. Even removed from everything else happening this year, I have no choice but see this perspective as wrong on every conceivable level. When a film is giving me flashbacks to Jean-Claude Brisseau’s The Exterminating Angels, a film where Brisseau tried to excuse lecherous behaviour that landed him in jail after the release of his previous film, something truly twisted is going on here.

All in all, I think I’m officially done with Woody Allen. One of the bigger critiques I’ve seen from others regarding this film is that it feels too much like his earlier work. If there’s any more of this in his filmography, I want absolutely nothing to do with it. The visuals are far too kitschy and garish to really gel with, the acting is embarrassing to see from these people who I actually like quite a bit, the mood thinks that melodrama alone is enough to make a film interesting, and the writing pretty much forces the audience to compare it to Allen’s own life… and hearing his version of events will induce frequent bouts of cringing in how wrong-headed it is. I never thought I’d be doing this for a second time but I’m placing another embargo down: Any future films that Woody Allen puts out, including A Rainy Day In New York which comes out next year, I am going to completely avoid. I don’t want to put any more money towards someone who has sunk this low, and I’m certainly not keen to see anything else he’s done. I’m a bit taken aback at how much I hate this thing, and I’m not going to condone others having to witness it for themselves.

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