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'Wonder Wheel': Round and Round It Goes

By Michael S. GoldbergeriBerkshires film critic
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Woody Allen flummoxes us. I think it was Henry Miller who asked to be judged by his literary work and not his personal life. "Fat chance" said some; "OK" said others; and "Who's Henry Miller?" was doubtlessly the response by most.
While Allen makes no such plea, aloud or tacitly, the arrival of each new movie from this film genius is always a sticky wicket. We are put at odds by alleged misbehavior, objectionable proclivities and charges of sexual harassment never quite resolved in the cauldron of public opinion.
Thus, with the opening of "Wonder Wheel," sometimes dramatically brilliant, cleverly derivative in its homage to a gaggle of great playwrights, and packed with Woody's Proustian shtick, the filmmaker subjects his fans to a conundrum: Is seeing the film a form of complicity?
It's like playing with the bad kid on the block, the one who's so much fun, even though your mom forbids it. You can't help but sense the 600-pound gorilla of propriety peering from the shadows of the theater, demanding you reconcile the moral dilemma, or not.
That dutifully noted, and since this is not a treatise on the moral obligations of the artist, it now behooves to review the film. First and foremost, Kate Winslet is nomination-worthy in her stellar portrayal of Ginny, an emotionally frustrated Coney Island waitress married to Humpty (Jim Belushi), a boorish but harmless carousel operator. They live in a ramshackle structure overlooking the midway that Ginny informs once housed a freak show. The accompanying cacophony of the games and amusements is what she blames for her migraines.
Whether it's Winslet's philosophically astute portraiture or it's the writer's actual objective, you can't experience Ginny without thinking that O'Neill, Ibsen and Chekhov all had a hand in inspiring her creation. She makes us nervous, her paranoia, anxiety and melancholia over a misbegotten past begging for some dramatic panacea. However, when it arrives, or at least she thinks it does in the form of a young lifeguard/graduate student named Mickey (Justin Timberlake), we aren't so sure.
Add to this scenario of discontent the unexpected, ominous arrival of Carolina, the prodigal daughter, and you can include a few of the Greek scribes in the screenplay's pantheon of influence. You see, Juno Temple's Carolina, the pretty result of Humpty's first marriage and symbolic of his own recriminations, didn't go to college as he had hoped. She married a mobster instead. Now having turned state's evidence, she's on the lam. Ginny gets her a job waitressing.
Expectedly, friction results between Carolina and Ginny. "She'll bring trouble," warns the latter. To appease disappointed dad, shades of "The Glass Menagerie," Carolina enrolls in night school. So you can add a little Tennessee Williams to the script infrastructure. In fact, litterateurs, amateur and otherwise, might enjoy rummaging the pastiche of styles, occasioning to point them out — "Hey, that's rather Pinter-like" — but not too loudly. I probably even imagined a few just to appear smart.
But the hoity-toity allusions don't preclude Woody, in his meditation of lower class folkways and mores, from using a good old soap opera ploy in the form of a love triangle to get the plot moving. Meshed into his moral inquiry, he once again asks which crimes and misdemeanors can you live with, and is there a limit to the ethical wrongdoing you can sweep under the rug before complacently getting on with your life? In this ironically inclined jumble box of judgement, the characters are fallible victims, certain that only the upper strata get to enjoy self-determination.
Short of having Schopenhauer sing the chorus for effect, the focus is on the poor souls perched amidst the gaudiness of the proletarian circus … what the Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards might call sinners in the hands of an angry god. Into this setting the filmmaker builds his characters and unfurls the tale, matching the hard knocks atmosphere with dialogue spewed in bleats and moans of regret, the overriding theme being, what could have been.
But don't despair, dear reader. This is Woody, the auteur who long ago, by finding the mask of comedy hiding behind the mask of tragedy, developed his own form of optimism, a coping mechanism energized by the humor he sees in the human plight. Even in his darkest excavations, we suspect he believes there is some crazy acceptance if not redemption just beyond the horizon.
There is much to munch on here.
But oh, the qualification and discomfort presented by that gorilla. Channeling the visiting Martians in "Stardust Memories" (1980), who inform, "We like your movies, particularly the early, funny ones," we now might lamentingly add, "We found it easier to enjoy your films before you had an affair with your adopted daughter."
"Wonder Wheel," rated PG-13, is an Amazon Studios release directed by Woody Allen and stars Kate Winslet, Jim Belushi and Justin Timberlake. Running time: 101 minutes
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