wonder wheel (2017)

Wonder Wheel sees Woody Allen's late-career experimentation, a verve of enthusiasm for theatricality, a shun toward realism. The delicious pairing of Allen's signature trademarks in writing and directing with Vittorio Storaro's cinematography is in full bloom with swaths of deep tones spilling all over the frame, a light-play and color-play unable to contain itself, though rigorously controlled. It is this mix, as in much of late-period Allen, that characterizes the film as the deeply felt work of masters so adept that they could perform their craft in their sleep and the aloof sensibility of old men who've come to terms with the basics of what does and does not matter; what is the charm and what is the fluff of their trade. Allen's droll demeanor toward his work at this stage seems to come full circle as well as progress, it's all in fun with nothing too serious, but the fun is in the melodrama oozing from each scene. Here none of our performers have been keyed toward any natural emotion, instead favoring an entirely false sense of relation to the world around them, as unnatural and showy as the wild saturated tones splashing across each frame, as real as a carnival sideshow on the boardwalk. Allen uses Coney Island as mere backdrop, never indulging any of the players a ride on the cyclone or even the titular Wonder Wheel. Instead he positions the story at a time when Coney Island is on the downturn and business is slow, times are tough and everyone is giving up their dreams to make ends meet working for the summer. They wait tables, they run the merry-go-round, they serve as lifeguard at the beach. As is well-tread ground for an Allen feature, we have elements of intrigue with the mob, but the real story centers around a woman having a nervous breakdown and a young man caught between two loves. And infidelity.

This is far from a weak point of the picture, given nothing to hold onto but beautiful imagery, we are carried along through Wonder Wheel lightly. Allen's cinematic stage-play is always on the cusp of developing into something more compelling, yet keeps the real drama and emotion at bay throughout, with Winslet's true performance only breaking through at key moments of high anxiety, alcohol or stress induced realism. She and Belushi may be the only characters allowed to become so genuine, and only when the pressures of life have proven too great for them. The other players grin and mimic happy-go-lucky gee-whiz attitudes, especailly Timberlake's All-American playwright and Temple. Allen stages much of the film in dark corners, lit by neon, quiet places, under the boardwalk, a car in a rainstorm. Wide vistas establish our film from the beginning and then are done away with, virtually avoided as the film goes on, instead Allen brings us inward with shot-reverse-shot sequences comprised almost entirely of close-ups, indulging his Bergman-influenced studies of the human face as it emotes. That the emotions are so phony plays to the film's strengths as Storaro and Allen discover a surreal and completely false reality in which to lay their scene. The sequences really shine as the film draws to its somber conclusion and the cuts are done away with to favor long unbroken scenes of Winslet taking the stage for her virtuoso monologues and the real unhinged performance can finally begin. To bring a world of working-class Brooklyn and kitsch together with high art is always a goal of Allen's and here it finds a perfect blend. As the films concludes, Winslet has the spotlight and the few real moments come to their point. Allen sprinkles throughout scenes of unbroken Winslet that dive deep into her soul and crack the facade that the rest of the film lives in. It's a simple film for Allen, with little of his usual narrative flair, but it does represent a dive into a world of beauty over truth, of the theatricality of cinema overtaking the need to craft an emotionally draining story, it's a cinema that bleeds for itself in vivid color and doesn't attempt to cause the viewer to bleed along with it. 

Allen's filmmaking never ceases to find new merit, though the volume of his output means that we see the evolution step by step and not collected into a singular work of power and grace. Allen lets us into his creative process by constantly creating, each set of three or four pictures could easily have become one work of masterful art, but he chooses to continue his rate of output at the expense of having one picture to rave about. Wonder Wheel combines with his other Storaro pictures to form a gorgeous work of cinema that exists in a blissful reality only crafted inside of celluloid. The characters live fully in their own illusion and we float through the picture with them in time and are swept away. As in all life, we are lulled into a kind of complacency when each visual flourish is just as brilliant as the last and occasionally we are moved, when we can jog ourselves out of our day-to-day game of keeping up with the clock, just pausing under the boardwalk long enough to connect with our true self, our true feeling, the true beauty of the world around us. Here we see false images of false people suddenly becoming three-dimensional and feeling in an instant and in that same instant receding into themselves, not feeling as thought they are worthy of real thought and feeling, seeing that that kind of genuine authenticity and reality simply do not match the mundane trappings of their working class environment. That Allen can stage for us a play that dives so deeply and play it off as the aloof work of a jester is the strength that will always overcome his cinema. In Wonder Wheel the world is the stage and each player waits for their spotlight that may never come, not realizing that each instant of their life is a potential aria.