It is deeply disaffecting that Amazon would uphold its lucrative deal with a man exposed as one of the darkest figures in the film industry. The list of actors refusing to participate in projects with Woody Allen this week included Michael Caine, proving that the filmmaker – despite a career that spanned decades and which received widespread critical acclaim – is no longer the man he used to be.
Almost everything about Allen’s new film is poorly done, not least because of the harrowing sexual assault allegations levelled against him last autumn. If it weren’t for the glossy production values and endearing 50s soundtrack, I really think Amazon studios would be running on fumes. Released in the UK this week, Wonder Wheel has already met with critical and commercial failure in the US, which is an unfortunate trademark of the films produced by the fallen men of Hollywood.
I saw this out of sheer curiosity, but any expectations I might have had of an entertaining story, or even just a bit of light amusement, were disappointed. Dry, obvious and devoid of any emotional engagement with characters, Wonder Wheel is nothing short of a damning indictment of Allen, who is already in such a precarious position. It’s like he’s made his own sandy bed, and put up a neon sign to the world so we could come watch him lie in it. The first few minutes of the film betrayed a complete lack of originality, and it was difficult not to be offended by the number of clichés lined up, back-to-back, serving as dialogue.
Plot-wise, it offered some potential, except for the fact that it might have happened anywhere, not just in an apartment in the corner of Coney Island. A volatile, washed-up actress (Kate Winslet), trapped in an unhappy marriage (to Jim Belushi), is confronted with the appearance of an estranged stepdaughter (Juno Temple) who is on the run from a dangerous husband. Oh, and said actress is having an affair with a man half her age (Justin Timberlake), with whom her stepdaughter is now romantically entangled. And her son (Jack Gore) is a pyromaniac. She has a lot on her plate, but worryingly, it borders on the confessional, and Hollywood has surely seen enough of that this year.
One would expect a glimpse of the goon husband who had incited such fear and paranoia, or a few more telling details of what he actually did in his day-job, but all we get is Juno Temple’s elusive claim: “I know where the bodies are buried.” Unfortunately, nothing in the story indicates much research at all. While some tension built towards the climax of the piece, it came far too late. The story was a lazy attempt to negotiate some cheap drama from an overused kitchen sink scenario, with a subplot that was irreparably weak.
Perhaps the whole Tennessee Williams/ Eugene O’Neil homage might have worked if Allen wasn’t so completely obsessed by it: having Justin Timberlake spell it out to the camera in the first shot, reminding us every two minutes (or less) that he is a writer, a character in his own story, susceptible to his own tragic flaw, his hamartia, if you will, was unnecessary. Even – as if the man had no shame – having the young writer debate with his philosopher friend the merits of his romantic situation and his motivations. Show your audience a smidgen of respect and stop spelling everything out.
I have a lot of admiration for Kate Winslet as an actress, but was deeply disappointed to see her in this role, giving herself to it as if it were pivotal to her career. But even her heroic efforts couldn’t cover over the artifice of her scenes. Winslet herself admitted to disliking her role. Characters weren’t people — they were archetypes, lifted out of a collection of plays and placed on screen, forced to interact with one another but not quite sure how. It’s a close call for least-favourite, but since each one was so pitifully underdeveloped it took a lot of nerve not walk out altogether.
It might seem implausible that hired goons arrive and take Humpty’s (the only name worth remembering) word that he isn’t hiding his daughter. Laughable, even. But this isn’t a film that plays for laughs. Despite attempts to seem charming, its clichés are sordid. In trying to nod to the audience, it guffaws. Wonder Wheel reveals itself for what it is: a vacuous, pretentious 90 minutes of film resembling graduate juvenilia, desperately lacking in warmth, glossed over with a nostalgic light.
Whether or not Allen’s latest offering was intended to save his credibility is unknown, but it misses the mark by far: just like his playwright Mickey, Allen is guilty of relentless idealism. Wonder Wheel proves that this project could not have saved him from the damaging effects of his personal life, and that, no matter the result of the recent allegations, his best filmmaking days are, regretfully, long behind him.