By now, keeping track of Woody Allen's cinematic blunders is futile. No one cranks 'em out like the 81-year-old workhorse, who has, for more than half a century, made a movie almost every year. With each recent success ― "Match Point," "Midnight in Paris," "Blue Jasmine" ― he unleashes approximately four misfires. Even the worst of them contain the hallmarks of a gifted, idiosyncratic storyteller, but imagine what Allen's résumé would look like if he only executed his first-rate ideas.
Allen's latest fizzle, the 1950s-set "Wonder Wheel," premiered Saturday at the New York Film Festival, capping off a week that saw scores of women lodge sexual assault allegations against notorious producer Harvey Weinstein. Coincidentally (or not), Weinstein helped to rekindle Allen's career in the '90s after the director's adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, accused Allen of molesting her. If Allen's depictions of ingénues and the intellectual older men they worship (or, in this movie's case, resent) weren't already worth several eye rolls, the arrival of "Wonder Wheel" ― distributed, no less, by a company that just fired an executive for alleged sexual harassment ― couldn't come at a more inopportune moment.
This calamity isn't worth it. Even Allen's laziest scripts tend to contain decent movies begging for air, but talented actresses wind up ensnared in the half-baked words he scribbles for them. Here, it's Kate Winslet and Juno Temple who are subjected to the stardust memories of Allen's imperial phase, when films like "Annie Hall," "Manhattan," "Hannah and Her Sisters" and "Interiors" made him one of America's sharpest observers of neurotic metropolitan repartee.
Winslet plays Ginny, a Yankee-fried waitress at a clam house on the Coney Island boardwalk. She's already lost one marriage to infidelity, and now Ginny has taken a liking to Mickey, a smooth-talking wannabe playwright with a penchant for "melodrama and larger-than-life characters." Said playwright ― a military vet working as a lifeguard and studying at NYU ― is played, for some reason, by Justin Timberlake. The pop stud proved to be a promising actor in "The Social Network" and "Black Snake Moan," but his baby-blue eyes and youthful forehead can't save him now. Seeming uncomfortable with the rhythm of Allen's theatrical writing, Timberlake is stiff and inauthentic. He can't stop the feeling because he never starts with any credible emotions in the first place. Jim Belushi, playing Ginny's virile husband, Humpty, is no help, except to convince us that she'd be better off without the putz. ("You're being moody," he often tells her. Blech.)
A simplistic reading of "Wonder Wheel" yields a compelling thesis: Ginny's domestic claustrophobia and working-class tedium are partly the fault of her brash groom, who commands his wife to complete household chores and groans because she doesn't want to go fishing with his buddies. But "Wheel" denies Ginny, who is swept up in a web of passion and sorrow, the complexity she deserves. Winslet's strong will doesn't jell with the frazzled, delusional wreck to which Ginny is often reduced. That this is Allen's idea of a strong female lead is telling.
The dynamics are further complicated because Humpty's daughter, Carolina (Temple), has shown up unannounced after five years of estrangement from her father. In the midst of Ginny's affair with Mickey, the dramatist also falls for Carolina, creating a love triangle that exists in the snoozy space between screwball satire and marital melodrama.
Of course, everything comes to a head. Mickey wants to be Eugene O'Neill, and, if "Wonder Wheel" is any evidence, so does Woody Allen. There's a concise play buried in here somewhere, but it's lost in the movie's temperamental fuss. Allen's trademark characters-talking-in-circles dialogue falls flat because the tonal specifics of "Wheel" are so slapdash. Characters might as well grab megaphones as they broadcast their precise feelings, which occurs frequently. ("I've become consumed with jealousy," Ginny declares, to which you might want to respond with an emphatic, "Enough!") The whole thing is mind-numbingly artificial.
Winslet is no master when it comes to American accents, but she does her best Brooklyn husk, narrowly overcoming the chichi, undercooked material she's been handed. The movie's third act drifts into the unraveling-woman territory that better served Cate Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine," but Winslet manages to nail a couple of monologues with all the gusto of a veteran actress able to thrive on any turf.
"Wonder Wheel" is further enhanced by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who also gave Allen's "Café Society" a sun-speckled elegance. Here, Storaro frames Coney Island with lush nostalgia. When things are going swell for Ginny and Mickey, the sunny sky's blue hues glisten against pearly clouds. When events turn dreary, the gray of the rain crackles, as if disappointment is drizzling on the characters. In other words, Storaro does Allen's work for him.
Why do we ― that nebulous "we" that indicts Hollywood executives and everyday moviegoers alike ― keep giving Allen a platform? Apparently legends get to do whatever they want, thorny personal lives notwithstanding. I believe it's possible to separate art from the artist who created it, but doing so implies the art itself is worth much. These days, Allen's rarely is. Boy, bye.
"Wonder Wheel" opens in theaters Dec. 1.