Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Dec 10, 2017 5:33 pm 
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Muted tragedy on a garish stage

Another year, another Woody Allen movie written and directed by him. Since he cranks them out this way, and he's over eighty now, his record is great. You may think his best work, comedy classics like Bananas, Sleeper, and Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex, and the serious stuff, like Annie Hall, Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Hannah and Her Sisters, is all in the past, the latest of these being 1989. But what about Matchpoint (2005, Metacritic 72%) Vicky Christina Barcelona (2007, Metacritic 70%), Midnight in Paris (2011, Metacritic 81%), and Blue Jasmine (Metacritic 78%), the last only four years ago? He gets great casts, he comes up with ingenious screenplays, and lately he's had the famous Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro adding an orange glow to his scenes.

The critics hated Wonder Wheel, but like all Woody Allen movies, it's worth looking at, and if it's a failure, it's an interesting one, different from the others. I have to repeat my favorite quote from the artist Robert Motherwell, that an artist's unsuccessful works are the necessary stepping stones to the good ones. We can't all produce nothing but masterpieces or hits, and if we don't keep working, we won't make anything. If Woody had taken a year off, there's no guarantee what he did next would be a zinger. More likely he'd just lose his touch, or get so depressed he couldn't work again. He's said making movies every year is all that keeps him from going suicidal.

Wonder Wheel seems perched uneasily between a corny Forties or Fifties Hollywood movie, an arty play by William Inge or Tennessee Williams, or a Greek tragedy. Isn't this a new combination, at least for Woody? Creating a feel that's both lurid and downbeat, the action is set at the declining Brooklyn beach playground of Coney Island in around 1950. Storaro gives it a glow that hovers between the natural and the unreal, a light that illuminates lovingly recreated postwar rides, games, and tacky signage, including large Pepsi and Coca Cola ads, as well as brightly lit actors in period clothing. The action is narrated for us, tellingly, by Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a young man who, though a lifeguard in the summer, when this takes place, is a student of literature at NYU with an interest in playwriting. He makes it clear he's looking for more complexity and variety that he got from traveling to Bora Bora - his favorite place in the wartime world tour with the Navy that forcibly interrupted his studies. When he meets the 25-year-old Carolina (Juno Temple) and falls for her, it's her wild story of escaping from life with a gangster husband that arouses him most. "You've been around the world," Carolina tell him. "Yes, he says, but you've been around the block." (More amusing exchanges like this might have enlivened the often dreary proceedings.)

The center stage action focuses on the 39-year-old former actress Ginny (an enjoyably gritty, unglamorous but beautiful Kate Winslet: and how could she not love this role?), who's stuck with the crude, alcoholic but on the wagon schlub Humpty (Jim Belushi), who runs a carousel, while she's stuck as a waitress at a seafood restaurant. But Ginny meets Mickey, and they initiate an affair which he enjoys, but she expects more of - escape from her dreary life. Carolina has appeared, after five years of alienation from her father, Humpty, on the run from the Mob who she's blabbed about to the feds. She hides out with Humpty and Ginny. There is the delusion that since they weren't speaking for so long, the Mobsters wouldn't come here to look for her, and she becomes a waitress while starting college classes to better herself as Humpty wants.

There's another character - a symbol of doom, a pointless distraction? - in the person of Ginny's young son from a previous failed marriage, Ritchie (Jack Gore), a nearly full-time arsonist, mostly too busy setting fires to attend school.

Much of this seems uninteresting in the recounting, even the appearances of Mobsters in beautiful gleaming black Cadillacs, carrying doom with them like the motorcycles in Cocteau's Orphée. They are coming to carry Carolina away. Mickey trashes his relationship with Ginny, and we may feel for Ginny, who, like Humpty, turns to drink when the shit hits the fan. That takes various forms: Richie setting more and more fires, Carolina luring Mickey away from Ginny, Ginny ruining her relationship with MIckey by giving him a ridiculously inappropriate expensive present bought with money stolen from Humpty's family savings meant for Carolina, Carolina's ominous disappearance - a whole lot goes wrong.

Woody whips up a tragic finale, but it fizzles. Few playwrights since O'Neill and Arthur Miller have been able to manage even a muted, pathetic modern tragic finale. But for a moment while her inexplicable son is setting fires, we witness the spectacle of a woman in flames in Kate Winslet's sadly striving Ginny, full of vigor but with nowhere to go. So at the end she and Humpty are back together again much as they were at the outset. There is a flirting with tragedy, but a lot of the focus on this complicated (but well-orchestrated) plot is, as so often with Woody Allen, on youth and age, and the latter's urgent need to get in bed with the former. Mickey likes that Ginny's decades his senior (though for the record, Winslet's really only six years older than Timberlake). Their common interest in theater is a bond, and he gives her as a present the then new book by the psychiatrist and Freud biographer Ernest Jones, Hamlet and Oedipus (published in 1949). But when he sees Carolina, it's love at first sight, which he believes in, along with romance and melodrama.

Richard Brody of The New Yorker notes that Allen "fills the story with wildly mixed emotions of pride and gilt, psychological clarity and moral horror," but under pressure of her migraines and failed dreams and guilt Ginny "loses her grip on reality," suffering "a form of madness that blots out the story's bitter truths and comes as a sort of deliverance." That's a nice way of seeing it, because it's a resolution: I felt the finale was just a muddle, though that's more like life than classical drama, and points to the experimental, sketchy, provisional nature of much of Woody's often hasty, sometimes brilliant and successful movies - when they come together. Nearly everyone charms, or at least is vivid in Wonder Wheel. Timberlake is the drama's appealing, virile, yet faintly comic narrator-participant and engine. Winslet takes us on a heady, plucky dive into hope, eroticism and despair that's fun and exciting to watch, if only for a while.

Wonder Wheel, 101 mins, had its world premiere 14 Oct. 2017 as the Closing Night Film at the 2017 New York Film Festival. The US theatrical release began 1 Dec. 2017.

A partial Woody Allen Filmography:
Metacritic ratings, titles, and dates back to 2003:

46 Wonder Wheel 2017
64 Cafe Society 2016
53 Irrational Man 2015
54 Magic in the Moonlight 2014
78 Blue Jasmine 2013
54 To Rome with Love 2012
81 Midnight in Paris 2011
51 You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger 2010
45 Whatever Works 2009
70 Vicky christina Barcelona 2007
48 Scoop 2006
72 Matchpoint 2005
54 Melinda & Melinda 2004
43 Anything Else 2003

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