Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel comes at a tumultuous time in the Hollywood film industry, and the film’s exploration of the seedy underbelly of Coney Island in the 1950’s is somehow culturally relevant.
With Allen’s own sexual abuse controversy surrounding his adopted daughter muddying the discussion of a lot of his later films, Wonder Wheel is frighteningly honest, and proves Allen’s undeniable status as a master craftsman, if a little dry at times.
Ideas seem to emerge in swarms in popular creative fiction; yesterday it may have been teen vampires or S&M fetishists, but today the Hollywood circus appears to be thematically returning to its Vaudevillian roots. The word ‘circus’ derives from the Latin word for ‘circle’, describing the ringmaster’s circus ring where the show was hosted, and has its roots as far back as Ancient Rome. The argument could be made that all of modern Hollywood descends in some part from the Vaudeville acts, American travelling circuses, burlesque and show-business trades of the nation’s early foundations, so there is a sense of completion in returning to this theme as we wind up 2017.
IT (2017) recently reminded us all why we are all so scared of clowns, meanwhile the upcoming, rather hyperbolic release of The Greatest Showman (2017), a concocted Hollywood sham glamourising the life of P.T. Barnum (the infamous circus showman and charlatan who has often been likened to Donald Trump), is a stark reminder of the fact that the Hollywood self-propagating-bullshit-machine has never slowed down.
P.T. Barnum has long been credited with coining the phrase ‘There’s a sucker born every minute’, and judging from the trailers of Hugh Jackman’s colourful and glorified character in The Greatest Showman, the mantra hasn’t left many Hollywood producer’s pocketbooks. You have to at least give Woody Allen credit that he has consistently retained his artistic integrity throughout the years; his devotion to make art rather than money, being rooted to the themes he has explored his entire career.
Wonder Wheel, in its basic plot, is every Woody Allen movie ever made; a small set of characters slowly drawn into a web of salacious affairs and relationship complications. The story begins heavily entrenched in a small dingy apartment in Coney Island, as Humpty, operator of the Coney Island Merry Go Round, played by Jim Belushi, receives a surprise visit from his estranged daughter Carolina, played by Juno Temple. The movie by no means offers up Coney Island and the titular ferris wheel of the title as a nostalgic paradise. From the outset we see the debauched carnival through the eyes of Ginny, Humpty’s jaded wife, played wildly and perfectly by Kate Winslet.
Whilst the young, newly arrived Carolina marvels at how wonderful it must be to live in a theme park, Winslet’s bitter character notes how you never get used to the noise, as target practice gunshots and hokey carnival music chime in the background. The melodrama is quickly set up as we learn that Carolina is fleeing from her gangster ex-husband, whilst Ginny has secretly begun an affair with Mickey Rubin, an ex-naval lifeguard who is studying to be a playwright. Justin Timberlake is superbly cast as Mickey, and it’s hard not to see a bit of tongue-in-cheek playfulness from Woody Allen here, who perhaps might fancy himself as the good-looking playwright once entrenched in complex extra-marital affairs. Indeed, the central love triangle in the film harkens back to Allen’s most successful films like Manhattan (1979), a partial self portrait, as Ginny competes for Mickey’s affection, but slowly loses it to the young and attractive Carolina, all the while facing the threat of her world unravelling should Carolina find out and tell her father (Ginny’s husband) Humpty about the affair.
All the performances are solid, with Belushi giving a career topping performance; Timberlake oozing charisma, and Juno Temple ever the alluring starlet. But without a doubt the film is stolen by Winslet’s performance, who bravely follows her later career trend of exploring dark and unglamorous aspects of her acting. She shows such breadth of character, from the brooding and lustful wife, to doting mother, bitter waitress and finally manic sociopath, that we come to see her as the central flame of the film.
The theme of fire runs throughout Wonder Wheel, embodied perfectly through the darkly comic relief of Ginny’s psychologically damaged 10-year-old son Richie (from a previous marriage, played by Jack Gore), who has developed a certain unpredictable taste for arson. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro follows the thematic fire perfectly, utilising a warm colour palette of reds, oranges and yellows. At times, the strong use of orange in the film evokes the early Dutch painters like Vermeer or De Hooch, who idolised the colour. In fact, as is typical of Allen’s later work, there is a constant sense of the painterly about the film. From the outset the mise en scene is fixed upon the relationship and juxtaposition between background, foreground, character and still life, in a way that resembles very strongly, European and early American art movements of the 1800’s. When the drama and tension unfolds, the cinematography turns stark red, like a volcano about to explode. Whilst at some points the drama is over-laboured, the tension is nonetheless brilliantly expressed through the production design.
At the core of the drama lies Woody Allen’s philosophical thesis, which at times seems troubling, but at other times too astute to ignore. Timberlake’s character Mickey reveals some of Allen’s views when he first meets Carolina, dropping the book he was reading on her; ‘Hamlet and Oedipus’ by Ernest Jones. They go on to discuss the text, a psychoanalytical approach to Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the broader context of life, Greek tragedy, drama – and the taboos which humans appear born to suppress, and artists are thus constantly required to explore. At the core of the film, Allen is clearly exploring Oedipal issues through the relationships between the oddly assorted family, the conclusion of which seems to be that humans are fated to fall in lust, with the younger Mickey and Carolina being inevitable temptations for the older characters. Is this in part some justification of Woody’s unfaithfulness and allegations of sexual advantageousness towards his own younger stepdaughter? Quite possibly.
Nonetheless, in an age where conservatism and sexual taboos are growing, at the same time that predators like Harvey Weinstein are rightfully being exposed – accusation and mob justice are also confusing the sometimes complex and problematic sexual mores of society at large for quick-fix solutions. Perhaps it’s more important than ever for cinema that explores the human condition and sexuality in its complexity and tragic imperfectness.
Wonder Wheel is not the best Allen movie ever made; at times dark and panicky it lacks the lighthearted confidence and humour of some of his great films. It is however a deep film, which looks unapologetically at human weakness and the psychological desires which lie beneath the surface of the image we all present to the world.
As the wheel turns, and old themes are explored once more, you couldn’t do yourself ill favour by choosing Wonder Wheel as your carnival-themed summer picture over the rather trashy and phony looking P.T. Barnum biopic, which appears to be the calling card of Hollywood excess and artificiality.
The aforementioned Manhattan was Woody Allen’s ninth directed feature film, whilst Wonder Wheel is his fifty-second.