Wonder Wheel: The Suppliants, by David Bax
There’s an elephant in the room whenever we talk about a Woody Allen movie. But the bright silver lining to the black, awful cloud that’s rolled out recently is the fact that people are finally addressing the elephants in every room, from cinema to tech to politics and beyond. And by “people,” I mean the privileged men like myself who have been eager to separate the art from the artist because doing so comes so easily to those of us who haven’t been victimized. I haven’t reviewed one of Allen’s movies since Midnight in Paris but I made no mention then of his crimes or general disgustingness. I apologize for that. As for now, I’m about to tell you that Wonder Wheel is a very good movie, even a great one. I don’t know that that means I’m going to tell you to go see it, though. That’s a difficult decision to make, especially since money talks in this world and it’s also used to paper over any number of misdeeds, especially those of powerful men. With that in mind, I would recommend that, should you decide to go see Wonder Wheel, you balance the scales by donating the cost of your ticket (or one month of the streaming service you eventually use) to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. As penance for raving about the movie, I’m going to make a donation myself.
With pleasant warmth, we are introduced to Coney Island. It’s summer, sometime in the 1950s, and the camera lights down on a beach packed with happy tourists and locals. On the boardwalk, they play games and shout with joy. The setting is so lively and lighthearted, it’s tempting to assume we’ve settled in for one of Allen’s broad comedies. But Wonder Wheel wears the buskin, not the sock; rain is coming. Mickey the lifeguard (Justin Timberlake), Carolina the mob wife on the run (Juno Temple), Ginny the waitress (Kate Winslet) and Humpty the fisherman (Jim Belushi) are not destined for fun in the sun.
Allen has had success with large ensembles before but, with the exception of some colorful character actors (Max Casella, David Krumholtz, Debi Mazar) who pop in briefly, Wonder Wheel is essentially a four-hander. Luckily, they’re all terrific. Belushi, because he committed the crime of not being his more famous brother (and of spending eight years on a bad sitcom), always seems to surprise me when I’m reminded how good an actor he is. Maybe it’s time for that to stop.
Yet I can easily foresee many viewers disagreeing with me about the performances. Mickey, an aspiring playwright, proclaims, “I relish melodrama and larger-than-life characters.” Wonder Wheel feels the same way; people who can’t sit through old movies without laughing at the “corny” stuff are going to have a hard time with this one. But Allen commits wholly to the throwback/homage/affectation/whatever you want to call it, putting the movie in league with his other retro works like Radio Days. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro is on board as well, letting his wide-angled lenses drink in the rich, textured colors of the obvious sets and often framing the actors in a way that is almost reminiscent of old television shows, with the characters front and center.
A more fitting comparison, though, would be to the stage, not to television. As alluded to above, Wonder Wheel is a tragedy, and an earnest one at that, even though it also finds room to be self-examining. Mickey’s love of drama gives him and Ginny entrée to discuss the nature of tragedy’s most important ingredient, the fatal flaw, and to wonder aloud whether it has to be something the character can help about themselves. You’ll be asking the same thing by the end.
In one other bit of possible meta-commentary, Mickey is, in effect, the Greek chorus, except that it takes him most of the movie to realize he’s not the protagonist. Like far too many men, he’s slow to entertain the idea that it’s not all about him. Could this be a bit of self-awareness creeping into Allen’s work? Probably not. But most great movies, which is what Wonder Wheel is, are full of things that their creators didn’t consciously intend.