If the standards applied to I Love You, Daddy — Louis C.K.'s unfortunately self-referential film — are applied to Woody Allen's latest, Amazon Studios will have nixed its wider release by the time you read this. Did the 82-year-old pick the wrong year to make a self-referential melodrama, or what? With lines like "When it comes to love, we often turn out to be our own worst enemy," Wonder Wheel was guaranteed to cause controversy. By highlighting the line in the trailer, Allen gives the impression of courting trouble.
Wonder Wheel is the auteur's 49th feature and his most ill advised promotionally, artistically or by any measure. Once again, he does that thing he did with Blue Jasmine, invoking the spirit of Tennessee Williams — who, to the best of my knowledge, never set a play in Coney Island. Less A Streetcar Named Desire than A Carousel Called Crazy, the result is an exercise in pointlessness.
Things get off to a grating start with Justin Timberlake grinning into the camera as a lifeguard named Mickey. He warns us he dreams of being a great dramatist and is about to tell a story that will employ symbols. He fails to alert us to the onslaught of clichés and cornball dialogue to which we'll be subjected for an hour and 41 minutes.
We're introduced to Ginny (Kate Winslet) and Humpty (Jim Belushi), who reside in a shabby dwelling located improbably near the amusement park's merry-go-round and Ferris wheel. Ginny is 40 and a failed actress. Having left her ex for the security of life with the guy who repairs the rides, she now yearns for something more. As in, more than watching Humpty parade around in an undershirt like Marlon Brando's in Streetcar, only several sizes larger.
She and Mickey cross paths and begin an affair. Ginny wistfully confides that her first husband was "a jazz drummer whose rhythm pulsated with life."
Humpty's estranged daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), turns up on cue. She's 26 and hiding from her mobster husband — whom she ratted out, she confesses after she and Mickey cross paths ("I know where the bodies are buried"). Being a dramatist, Mickey is drawn to Carolina's colorful backstory and becomes smitten. Just a reminder: Timberlake is Allen's avatar here.
Their dalliance throws the already-unhinged Ginny over the edge. You can tell because she attempts to convince Mickey she's not a waitress but merely "playing" one and delivers rambling, cliché-riddled monologues. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro uses a color wheel to bathe Winslet in a rotation of garish reds, oranges, grays and blues as she overacts.
Which reminds me: all that Oscar buzz? Ignore it. Winslet's performance is as off-the-wall as are her excuses for defending Allen's icky history, despite his adopted daughter's ongoing insistence that he molested her when she was 7.
I'll leave the rest of the story — and the theatricality of the performances — to your imagination and circle back to Louis C.K. His film (easily the better of the two) was pulled because he was perceived as thumbing his nose at audiences with allusions to the misconduct that eventually got him into hot water. Allen offers the story of a dramatist upending his relationship with an actress so he can pursue one with her nonbiological daughter. Anyone see a difference?
There may be one. With studio head Roy Price recently removed in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations, Amazon has even more reason than the Orchard (Daddy's distributor) did to make a stand. Unless, of course, it's only interested in making a buck.