The critics had their claws sharpened before the new Woody Allen film even began. In the din of the crowd buzzing ahead of the New York Film Festival premiere of Wonder Wheel, two words could be heard over and over: “Harvey Weinstein.”
With jaw-dropping sexual assault allegations leveled against the mogul galvanizing the industry and making headlines around the globe, it’s an almost unfathomably awkward time to premiere a new film from Woody Allen, who himself has been subject of sexual abuse allegations, and which is distributed by Amazon Studios, whose programming chief has just been accused of sexual harassment as well.
But then again, maybe it’s always a bad time to release a Woody Allen film with casual references to a father who might be sexually attracted to his daughter.
This might all be more beside the point if Wonder Wheel wasn’t a phoned-in snooze. What begins as sort-of twee camp, with Justin Timberlake’s opening narration jarring the audience into giggles, devolves into Eugene O’Neill theatrical melodrama with no tonal connective tissue to hold the bones together.
Kate Winslet delivers a peculiar, transfixing, and at times even towering performance as Ginny, a flailing Coney Island housewife on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and does her damndest to elevate the material and her co-stars. But, as cinematic history has taught us, Kate Winslet can only do so much to save a sinking ship.
Still, in light of how blindingly the Harvey Weinstein scandal has brought to light the conversation of whether stars should support Hollywood power players who have been accused of sexual abuse, the bigger question is: Why would she even want to try?
The film is set in Coney Island in the 1950s, and, no matter how you feel about the waning quality of Allen’s writing in recent years, he’s as skilled as ever at evoking the mood of a particular time and place. The omnipresent clanks of boardwalk carnival music both service and whimsically contrast with Ginny’s latent anxiety, while Justin Timberlake’s fits-him-just-so period bathing suit services the character’s wholesome horniness—and our viewing pleasure.
The pop-star-turned-actor plays Mickey, a lifeguard carrying on an affair with Ginny, who is seeking to be rescued from her claustrophobic, unfulfilling life: days spent waiting tables at a clam house, nights spent in a cramped apartment in the shadow of the boardwalk’s Wonder Wheel. It’s all too small to accommodate her own big personality plus her pyromaniac son from a previous marriage; her husband, Humpty (Jim Belushi); and Humpty’s estranged, grown daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), who is seeking refuge after her marriage to a gangster gets her marked by the mob.
Ginny’s desperation to turn Mickey into her white knight swiftly escalates to delusion and, when Carolina starts flirting with him, too, paranoia and derangement.
The earlier scenes, in which Winslet is tasked with playing the anxious, agitated Brooklyn housewife type—“My nerves are shot!” “I got a headache!”—for laughs are an awkward fit for the actress and whatever accent it is that she’s doing. Still, her crazed last act is an acting masterclass, echoing shades of the performance that won Cate Blanchett an Oscar for Blue Jasmine, but marred by material that pales in comparison.
In fact, she ignites such a spark in some of those final scenes that you wonder what a more energetic director or polished screenplay could have done for this film, not to mention her performance.
There are several long-take screaming matches that Winslet athletically charges through, but, playing against two steaming duds of scene partners in Belushi and especially Timberlake, she nearly comes off looking ridiculous. Or maybe that’s just residual effect of the script’s incessant demeaning of women. As The Hollywood Reporter’s Ashley Lee, who was also at the screening, said, “If you take a sip whenever a man calls a woman ‘crazy’ or ‘nuts’ in Wonder Wheel you will be sloshed by the time the credits roll.”
Could you call Winslet brilliant in this film? I think so? The rest is such a mess it’s honestly too hard to tell—least of which is the post-Weinstein furor that haunts its release.
As a movie fan, you might return for a new Woody Allen film nostalgic for the masterful storytelling of his glory days. As a critic, regardless of your feelings on the allegations against Allen, you return because his films remain, for better or worse, cultural events. But there’s now something uncomfortable and exceedingly complicated to reckon with when it comes to his films’ stars.
Winslet joined the many actresses who have unequivocally condemned Weinstein’s behavior, calling the allegations against him “disgraceful and appalling” and praising the women who have come forward as “incredibly brave.”
The actress, who won an Oscar for The Weinstein Company’s The Reader in 2009, said in her statement, “I had hoped that these kind of stories were just made up rumours, maybe we have all been naïve. And it makes me so angry. There must be ‘no tolerance’ of this degrading, vile treatment of women in ANY workplace anywhere in the world.”
The fact remains, however, that Winslet acted in the film Carnage for Roman Polanski, who was just accused by a fourth woman of sexually assaulting her while she was underage. (Weinstein, for his part, rallied the filmmaking community around Polanski to shield him from jail time, saying in 2009, “Whatever you think about the so-called crime, Polanski has served his time.”)
And when asked about whether the molestation allegations against Woody Allen gave her pause before agreeing to star in Wonder Wheel, her defense was, to be blunt, clumsy.
“Of course one thinks about it,” she told The New York Times. “But at the same time, I didn’t know Woody and I don’t know anything about that family. As the actor in the film, you just have to step away and say, I don’t know anything, really, and whether any of it is true or false. Having thought it all through, you put it to one side and just work with the person. Woody Allen is an incredible director. So is Roman Polanski. I had an extraordinary working experience with both of those men, and that’s the truth.”
Granted, Winslet gave that interview before the bombshell Weinstein investigations were released, but the defense seems to be at odds with her post-Harvey statement. And while it’s too much of a leap to jump to hypocrisy, there is a slew of stars who are in similarly awkward positions when it comes to working with Allen. As Lena Dunham recently wrote, “Woody Allen, whose daughter has said, over his denials, that he sexually abused her as a child, is still getting the hottest young stars to work with him.”
It’s frankly shocking, given the fact that signing on for a Woody Allen movie raises so many eyebrows—as Ronan Farrow said, starring in Allen’s films without speaking out about the molestation allegations “sends a message to victims that it’s not worth the anguish of coming forward—that so many stars still top his cast lists. Among them: Blake Lively, Miley Cyrus, Steve Carell, Kristen Stewart, Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Colin Firth, Selena Gomez, and Jude Law.
Perhaps even more so than for Allen’s last release, Café Society, we should expect the Weinstein case to bring the molestation allegations against him and the art vs. artist debate to the forefront of the Wonder Wheel press tour. And maybe the bigger question is if, this time, it will change things going forward.