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Wonder Wheel is impossible to view apart from Woody Allen’s family controversies

The movie involves a love triangle with a stepdaughter, for starters.

Juno Temple in Wonder Wheel
Juno Temple in Wonder Wheel
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

It’s always dangerous to assume a movie is actually about its creator. But in some cases it’s merited, especially when the filmmaker has taken pains throughout his career to invite the comparison.

Such is the case with Woody Allen, who in his decades-long career has always injected some avatar of himself into his movies, sometimes actually playing that character himself. His filmography is a catalog of his interests and obsessions and neuroses about relationships and self-image and right and wrong. Some of his movies are masterpieces; others are remarkably bad. But they’re always to some degree about him. So it’s entirely fair to read his latest, Wonder Wheel, through that lens.

A melodrama and fable set in post-war Coney Island, Wonder Wheel could, with some polishing, have been one of the good ones. But though there are moments of brightness, the movie’s a slog, with a central conceit that feels more like a sophomoric film school exercise than the work of an established writer-director. And what it says about its creator is, in the end, both tiresome and uncomfortable.

Wonder Wheel is a melodrama set in the working-class corners of post-war Coney Island

The movie announces its intentions via Mickey (Justin Timberlake), our narrator, and presumably the author of the story that follows, in which he’s also a character. (Sound familiar?) Micky’s a hunky lifeguard who did a tour of duty in Europe and now is spending the summer working at Coney Island (which isn’t the gem of the shore that it used to be, Mickey tells us) before returning to graduate school, where he’s studying for a master’s degree in European Drama.

“I relish melodrama and larger-than-life characters,” Mickey says, aptly describing the characters that populate this world: a carousel operator named Humpty (Jim Belushi); his wife Ginny (Kate Winslet), a former actress who now waitresses at an oyster restaurant on the boardwalk; and Ginny’s son Richie (Jack Gore), who has a penchant for setting fires. Ginny is perpetually on the edge of a nervous breakdown, partly because of Humpty’s general awfulness and partly because she harbors guilt from breaking up her previous marriage to Richie’s father by having an affair.

Justin Timberlake in Wonder Wheel
Justin Timberlake in Wonder Wheel

Everything gets cranking when Humpty’s daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) shows up, having fled her mobster husband for her father’s home. The two had a falling out when Carolina married the mobster five years earlier, but they make up quickly; Humpty seems more angry at her for leaving home than for marrying the mobster. And when Carolina moves into the ramshackle tiny house they share above the lights of Coney Island, he dotes on her, pays for her summer school, and defends her to his loutish fishing buddies.

Ginny doesn’t hate Carolina, though she’s not very happy she’s there, either. Seeking escape one day, she takes a walk on the beach at dusk and meets Mickey, whose shift is ending. They grab beers. He tells her about his naval service and his love of Bora Bora, especially “the colors.” He tells her he wants to write “plays about human life — great tragic plays where the protagonist gets crushed because of some fatal weakness.” She tells him about her former life as an actress. Later they meet under a pier and have sex, and she tells him she’s married, and he doesn’t mind at all.

The film is Mickey’s play — and it’s not a very good one

It’s always worth remembering that Mickey is telling this story, because it helps explain (though not entirely excuse) some of the film’s more self-conscious stylistic quirks. His love of the colors of Bora Bora, which he proclaims to Ginny early on, help to explain the film’s conspicuously bright colors (shot by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro). They’re coming from the lights of the Coney Island amusement park, but they’re heightened; at times the scenes are bathed in glowing orange or pink, and they shift as characters talk to one another. The effect is that of a fairy tale, or a fantasia.

Kate Winslet in Wonder Wheel
Kate Winslet in Wonder Wheel

Mickey also loves the plays of Eugene O’Neill, which he says are about “the human condition, the tragic human condition, how we have to lie to ourselves in order to live.” Wonder Wheel’s staginess comes from this obsession: It feels much more like a play than a film, with characters endlessly speechifying about their motivations and their wishes and hopes and dreams, but not actually doing all that much.

That Wonder Wheel is Mickey’s play is further underlined by his promise to Ginny that he’ll write a great play, and it will have a great part for her in it. And indeed, Winslet is great in the role of Ginny. Her performance falls squarely in the realm of melodrama — Mickey did promise that at the beginning — and it has something in common with Cate Blanchett’s Oscar-winning role in Allen’s 2013 film Blue Jasmine. But it’s not a great role, or a great play.

Though Ginny has the most to do in the film — she’s certainly the “protagonist who gets crushed because of some fatal weakness” that Mickey promised — Wonder Wheel sells her short. It’s a cramped role that lacks imagination, though Winslet does her best with it. Ginny is a type, the unhappy housewife whose dreams have slipped away, but her “fatal weakness” just seems to be … unhappiness?

This is a problem that extends to the whole film: The point is entirely unclear, on a dramatic level. There isn’t much in the way of tension or narrative interest, and the characters’ interactions feel predictable and obvious. They repeat themselves a lot, without any shades of meaning being added. Winslet and Temple are lovely to watch, but it’s hard to care.

The only character who seems surprising at times is Mickey, who in contrast to everyone else is cool as a cucumber and detached enough to take up with Carolina while he’s still sleeping with her stepmother. One day, they meet on the beach, and Mickey gives Carolina a copy of Ernest Jones’s Hamlet and Oedipus, a 1949 psychoanalytic study of Hamlet by one of Sigmund Freud’s colleagues.

There couldn’t be a more Woody Allen-esque tell than this.

It’s impossible not to see Wonder Wheel through the lens of Woody Allen’s life

Hamlet and Oedipus interprets Hamlet’s character through the lens of the Oedipus complex, Freud’s idea that one necessary stage in psychosexual development involves a child’s unconscious desire for their opposite-sex parent.

Kate Winslet in Wonder Wheel
Kate Winslet in Wonder Wheel

The most famous version of the Oedipus myth (in which the title character kills his father and sleeps with his mother) is Oedipus Rex, written by Sophocles around 429 BC — another play that Mickey seems to be interested in, indicated by a fleeting reference to a “theater in Athens” near the end of the film. It’s not a straight retelling of the Oedipus story, of course; the pieces are scrambled. But Humpty, Ginny tells Mickey, “has an unnatural attachment” to Carolina (and indeed, he seems to treat her with much more love than he treats his wife). And Mickey has insinuated himself directly into a love triangle involving both a stepmother and a daughter.

Here it becomes impossible to forget who made this movie. Mickey functions here as Allen’s stand-in; in the 1990s, Allen famously had an affair with Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, while he was in a long-term relationship with Farrow. He left Farrow and married Previn, to whom he’s still married. And for decades, Allen and Farrow’s adopted daughter Dylan has alleged that her father molested her when she was 7 years old, while friends of Farrow’s have long maintained that whatever might have happened, Allen had an unnatural preoccupation with Dylan when she was young, for which he sought therapy.

In late 2017, especially following the canceled release of Louis C.K.’s Allen tribute film, I Love You, Daddy, this all feels very queasy. There’s nothing untoward going on in Carolina and Humpty’s relationship, to be sure — but at a minimum, it’s impossible to imagine Allen isn’t aware of what their relationship evokes. It’s impossible not to wonder, watching Wonder Wheel, exactly how much of Allen is manifested in Mickey.

And maybe that’s the point. Mickey is stuck on himself, seemingly trying to simultaneously be the hero and writer of two dramas, one Greek, one O’Neill, but both set in a heightened version of rough-and-tumble Coney Island. Everyone else serves his whims, and the people around him are diminished as a result, turned into stock characters to stroke his own ego — which makes for bad drama and bad living alike.

Wonder Wheel opens in theaters on December 1.

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