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Don’t reject ‘Wonder Wheel’ too quickly


Some people I know refuse to see a film by Woody Allen. Any film he has directed. And the reason why should be obvious. Nevertheless, I argue that his latest film "Wonder Wheel" is better than you might think.

Following is the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Take a bit of Tennessee Williams, throw in a couple of Eugene O’Neill references, make the setting 1950 Coney Island, New York, and you have “Wonder Wheel,” Woody Allen’s 757th film.

That last part is an exaggeration. But Allen has been putting out movies pretty much once a year since the late 1960s so you do the math.

“Wonder Wheel” is, in some ways, standard Allen. It features a narrator – a young lifeguard played by Justin Timberlake – who falls for an older, troubled woman named Ginny, played by Kate Winslet. Naturally, there’s a narrator, not to mention a troubled woman.

Ginny is caught married, unhappily, to Humpty – that’s right, his name is Humpty – a carousel operator played by Jim Belushi. She’s a waitress in a beach-side crab shack, and they co-parent a son whose fascination with fire is likely tied to his mother’s emotional turmoil.

Allen hasn’t spent some four decades in Freudian psychoanalysis for nothing.

Things don’t improve when Carolina (played by Juno Temple), Humpty’s daughter from his previous marriage, comes calling, bag in hand. Seems she’s fled her husband, a mobster, and is afraid he’ll come for her. After all, as she says, she does know where all the bodies are buried.

And that’s the cinematic stew that Allen has concocted, a brew that begins to heat up past the boiling point when the lifeguard – a rather unreliable narrator – shifts his gaze from Ginny … to her stepdaughter.

It’s long been a debate: Can we ever separate the art from the artist? Should we even try? Those questions are particularly appropriate for Allen because he made some of the most affecting films of the late 20th century. And because many of those films reflect his own real-life experiences – from his love of jazz to his love of New York to his love of young women.

In his real life, Allen famously had an affair with Soon-Yi Previn, the 21-year-old adopted daughter of his then-lover, Mia Farrow, and who for 20 years now has been his wife.

Allen also was accused of sexually abusing another of his and Farrow’s adopted daughter’s, Dylan, when she was just 7. Those charges, put forth both by the girl and by Farrow, were never proven in court. But they’ve never gone away either.

Which to this day affects how people judge Allen and his work. Many reviews of “Wonder Wheel,” for example, are more about Allen himself than they are about the movie.

Yet “Wonder Wheel” has a lot about it worth admiring. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro expertly uses the shifting lights of Coney Island’s attractions to mirror each scene’s shifting moods. Allen’s camera movement around Humpty and Ginny’s cramped apartment is especially skillful.

And Allen’s cast, mainly Winslet, Belushi and Temple, acquits itself well, which comes as no surprise. Even in the current atmosphere – which has seen the careers of Hollywood power-men such as Harvey Weinstein go up in virtual flames because of sexual assault charges – good actors keep signing up for Allen’s movies.

Even Tennessee Williams couldn’t have made that into a believable story.

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