Woody Allen’s ‘Wonder Wheel’ is Yet Another Painful Glimpse at an Artist Past His Prime

The New York Film Festival closer prompts the question: When the movies are this bad, how does Allen still get the "genius" pass?

It is, to put it mildly, a weird week to see a new Woody Allen movie. His 49th film Wonder Wheel, which closes the New York Film Festival tomorrow night, lands as grenades are still exploding from the Harvey Weinstein scandal – many of their pins pulled by Ronan Farrow, Allen’s biological son, via his explosive New Yorker report earlier this week. And as we know, Farrow and Allen are estranged over the director’s own allegations of sexual misconduct; when those charges first surfaced, in the early 1990s, Allen navigated the accordant choppy career waters with the help of Mr. Weinstein, whose Miramax company distributed four subsequent Allen films that decade, including the “comeback” efforts Bullets Over Broadway and Mighty Aphrodite. Allen’s name has been omnipresent in the collective soul-searching that’s followed the Weinstein bombshells, usually as part of an answer (along with Roman Polanski and Casey Affleck) as to whether Weinstein’s career is over; Allen has, unsurprisingly, not commented on the Weinstein controversy, and as Wonder Wheel’s NYFF media screening this morning was not followed by a director and/or cast Q&A session (usually a foregone conclusions for the festival’s big titles, and certainly for its Closing Night selection), he did not do so today.

But you could feel it occupying our thoughts during the film, and you could hear it in the nervous titters that followed Kate Winslet’s offhand line, “Men can’t be trusted.” But in all honesty, there also wasn’t much else to think about during Wonder Wheel, which (if you’ll pardon the bad pun) finds the 81-year-old writer/director spinning his wheels yet again, with another lackluster riff on earlier characters and themes. The setting, as announced in an opening to-camera monologue by Justin Timberlake’s Mickey, is “Coney Island, 1950s” (Allen can’t even be bothered to pin down a year) and it concerns four characters: Mickey, a writer and grad student whiling away the summer as a lifeguard; Ginny (Kate Winslet), the unhappily-married waitress he has a passionate summer affair with; Humpty (James Belushi), her boorish husband, a carousel operator; and Humpty’s long-estranged daughter Carolina (Juno Temple), who married a gangster against her father’s wishes, and now appears, her eyes smeared with mascara, to hide out after leaving him.

“I’m marked,” she pleads. “They’re gonna kill me.” Humpty is unsympathetic (“That’s what you get when you marry a gangster!”) but he eventually gives in, his rediscovered pride and affection for his long-lost daughter serving as a helpful distraction from Ginny’s frequent escapes from their home. But eventually, Mickey and Carolina bump into each other, and there’s a bit of a spark, and Ginny – being a female protagonist over the age of 30 in a late-period Woody Allen movie – begins to come apart.

Part of what makes Wonder Wheel such a frustrating experience is that it’s so well-executed. The cinematography, by the great Vitorrio Storaro (The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, and Allen’s previous picture Café Society) is no-two-ways-about-it gorgeous, lush and luminous, and he plays inventively with a stylized lighting scheme  – hot, bright oranges and cool, sad blues, their temperatures shifting in sync with the changing moods of the scenes, like stage lighting cues. It’s a lovely effect, presumably meant to invoke Eugene O’Neill (whose name is dropped, rather clumsily), though it plays like Storaro knew what was wrong with the script, and decided to just lean into the artificiality of the thing. If Wonder Wheel is lit like a play, production designer Santo Loqausto makes it look like a stage set, with much of the action set in Ginny and Humpy’s apartment above the boardwalk (“I guess you get used to the noise,” Carolina shrugs). And Allen’s needle drops (which are sometimes literal; you hear the crackle at the beginning of the old record that plays under the opening credits) are well-curated, though he’s again doing that thing where he keeps recycling the same song – thankfully, not at Irrational Man levels.

And the actors all come out smelling pretty good. Belushi, working a Ralph Kramden look and vibe, capturing the character’s kindness and cruelty with equal skill. Timberlake is miscast but agreeable; Temple is wounded and wonderful. And Winslet does the absolute best she can with this nearly impossible character, playing her best moments (like a mirror scene, practicing how she’ll tell her lover she’s married) with verve – the way she looks at her husband, and then into the void, with a mix of sadness and resignation says more than the long, listless monologue Allen gives her shortly thereafter. But he basically turns her into Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine by the end of the movie, increasingly short-fused and tightly-wound, and then downright delusional. (That’s not all that gets recycled; you may be surprised, and then again maybe not, to learn that the third act includes yet another moral-conundrum-of-murder turn. That makes three films in a row, if you’re keeping score, plus Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream and Crimes and Misdemeanors and…)

Her last couple of scenes do, in fact, work – you finally get some idea of what he’s going for – but it’s too little, too late, and too much of a chore until then. Allen’s dialogue, which used to be his strength, has become his Achilles’ heel: impenetrably unconvincing, stilted and repetitive. As now-usual, the exposition is beyond clumsy (“He knows we haven’t exchanged words in five years,” Carolina explains to us in the guise of a conversation with her father, “the bad blood between us runs too deep”), and the character moments are painfully on-the-nose; at one point poor Winslet is forced to announce, out loud, “I’ve become consumed with jealousy!” He pens far too many flat, lifeless scenes of characters talking in circles, restating the same plot points, and accentuating the same conflicts, ad nauseam – and then, halfway through, he’ll stop the movie altogether for something like David Krumholtz’s scene as Timberlake’s trusted advisor, which just restates the plot, conflicts, and relationships, and then ends, adding nothing. It’s as if Allen doesn’t know that movies don’t run on a continuous loop of double features anymore, and there’s no need to catch-up the people who wandered in halfway through.

None of that would matter if Wonder Wheel were funny, and there’s no reason for it not to be, but he’s not even trying anymore. Allen still writes scripts that are paced and structured like comedies, but without the bothering to write any punchlines or buttons; I could count the actual jokes on one hand (and they’re not terribly good ones either, mostly sloppy exchanges like “How often do you turn 40? It’s a milestone!” “It’s a tombstone!”).

In other words, Allen is, by all appearances, still filming first drafts, full of placeholder scenes and dialogue in sore need of polish, and releasing first cuts, full of narrative dead-ends and scenes that don’t work. It is, by all accounts, how he’s been making films for years, and it didn’t used to matter, since his first drafts and first cuts were (usually) gold. But now that they’re not, there’s no one around him to tell him so, at least not in the form of collaborators (he hasn’t worked with another writer on a script since 1994), producers (that job was taken up 15 years ago by his sister), or studio heads (his current sweetheart deal with Amazon Studios gives him, as with all his earlier ones, final cut). This is what Woody Allen makes now, and this is apparently as good as it gets.

Which is part of what makes his continued evasion of serious repercussions, and the decision by otherwise progressive actors to keep working with him, so frustrating. The “art or the artist” conundrum is nothing new, and not even new to Allen – hell, he had it with himself, all the way back in Bullets Over Broadway, and that conversation is one we all have to have for ourselves, and wrestle with its consequences. But Wonder Wheel, like Café Society and Irrational Man and Magic in the Moonlight before it, poses a follow-up question: When the artist is bad, and the art is bad, what exactly is left to talk about?

“Wonder Wheel” closes the New York Film Festival Saturday night. It’s out December 1 in limited release.