I have to confess to being a viciously loyal Woody Allen fan since I was sixteen. I’ve seen nearly every one of his films, own about a dozen books on his work, and have even seen him playing clarinet at Michael’s Pub in Manhattan. Yet, for the last few years, I have been, along with most of his fans, disappointed. I don’t think he has yet made a truly “bad” film: but his last half dozen outings as auteur have felt ritualistic rather than passionate. What were once delightful leitmotifs disintegrated into annoying repetitive beats.
Well, Wonder Wheel is one for the true believers: Woody is back!
Set in his beloved Coney Island in the 1950s, this is certainly redolent of one of his masterpieces, Radio Days. However, an elderly Allen seems far less imbued with nostalgie than the younger version. He is less obsessed with period detail, or even his signature jazz soundtrack. The setting here provides merely the backdrop to characters. And this is where the work shines.
Kate Winslett, who has also had a run of mediocrity, is back doing what she does so well. She portrays Ginny, a beautiful woman, worn down my life, and not coping with turning 40. Outstanding as her boorish but oddly kind husband, Humpty, is Jim Belushi. Ginny begins an affair with lifeguard Mickey, played with a surprisingly deft touch by Justin Timberlake. Throwing oil into the inflammatory mix is Humpty’s estranged daughter, Carolina (a delightful Juno Temple), turning up being chased by her mob ex-husband.
Allen has written a tight and compelling script, and allowed his actors to do their work, unencumbered by too much “business”. He has avoided any descent into cuteness or cliché, and gives us some of the most rounded characters we have seen in the canon for many a year.
The ubiquitous Santo Loquasto, Allen’s long-time collaborator, has again given us a production design that is faultless. Stalwart of both Italian and US cinema, Vittorio Storaro, takes charge of cinematography, having worked last with Allen on Café Society. He delivers without a missed beat.
Love him or loathe him, Allen has been one of the pillars of independent US film-making for the last 40 years. His work is always interesting, and his refusal to compromise always admirable, if nothing else. With this latest work he has returned to some of the depth and humanity which has been sadly missing in recent times.
Wonder Wheel opens this Thursday at Palace Nova Cinema. Check their listing here.