Waitresses on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown
2017 was a somewhat noteworthy year by recent standards, in that we did not get a single new Woody Allen film at any of the cinemas in Oxford. (Compare this to 2010-11, when Whatever Works, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, and Midnight in Paris all appeared in the space of not much more than a year.) Should we read anything into this?
Well, it doesn't appear to be the case that Allen's legendary work ethic is declining, for his next project, A Rainy Day in New York, has already been filmed, and the fact that he can still get financing for his movies indicates they retain an audience. All this is despite the more-miss-than-hit quality of his last few films and an occasional sense that he's just going through the motions (I've commented on a couple of recent projects that they feel like he's just filmed the first draft he wrote).
If there is a shadow over Woody Allen's future career (and there have been suggestions that Rainy Day may never actually be completed), then it is because of the Unique Moment. Allegations of the most serious kind were made against Allen back in 1992, and in the current climate this alone apparently makes him untouchable by any right-thinking actor: virtually the entire name cast of Rainy Day have been queueing up to announce how much they regret making the movie, and donating their fees to charity. (Given that Allen's reputation has always enabled him to attract impressive casts to his films, improving their marketability and chances of a wide release, this may prove to be especially significant.)
I don't usually go about courting controversy, but this strikes me as the whole Me Too juggernaut spinning out of control and potentially crushing an innocent victim. I think it would be grossly unjust for Allen's career to be terminated off the back of this; he is not Harvey Weinstein, who by all accounts was a serial offender, whose behaviour was apparently an open secret in Hollywood, who has been accused by dozens of victims, and who may yet face criminal proceedings. Obviously there are problematic elements in Allen's work – he is perhaps just a little too fond of the notion that refined, intellectual men are devastatingly attractive to much younger, beautiful women – but the fact remains that we're talking about a single allegation, made a quarter of a century ago, which was fully investigated by professionals, whose judgement was that it had no factual basis. I'm all for zero tolerance of people who commit these kinds of crimes, but if we're going to assume that being accused equates to being guilty, we're heading to a place I'm not sure we're going to like.
Oh well. On to Wonder Wheel, Allen's forty-eighth movie as writer and director (so far as I've been able to figure out, anyway), which finds him in serious drama mode – or should that be 'serious melodrama' instead? Despite working with Amazon's movie wing, and apparently contending with a somewhat limited budget, the look and feel of an Allen movie remains unchanged – there's the same style of opening credits, and the same use of period music (on this occasion it's 'Coney Island Washboard', which is played roughly every ten minutes throughout the film and nearly drove me mad). And there's the use of a narrator, who on this occasion is Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a character in the film who styles himself as a playwright and storyteller. Mickey is upfront about the fact he likes melodramatic stories and broad-brush characterisation, but I'm never convinced that acknowledging you're making a melodrama excuses making a melodrama in the first place.
Anyway, this is not really Mickey's story: that honour falls to Ginny (Kate Winslet), a somewhat frustrated ex-actress working as a waitress in the Coney Island theme park in (we are invited to infer) the early 1950s. Ginny is unhappily married to Humpty (Jim Belushi), who basically looks, talks, and acts like Fred Flintstone, and further stressed out by her young son's pyromaniac tendencies. Seeking to escape from all this, she has begun an affair with Mickey himself, and dares to dream that they may have a future together.
Things become considerably more complicated with the arrival of Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty's estranged daughter from his first marriage. Now fleeing from her mobster husband, Carolina seeks sanctuary with Ginny and Humpty, and, after some initial hostility, is able to win her father over. It just places more strain on Ginny's domestic situation, though – and when it becomes very apparent that Mickey and Carolina are rather taken with each other, it may be more than Ginny can bear...
The days of Woody Allen's attempts to pastiche Ingmar Bergman seem to be long since over, and if anything he's going through a period where, once in a while, he has a go at being Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams. This is certainly one of those, although the great American playwright whose name gets checked in the film is Eugene O'Neill. This is a confined, talky movie, with very much the feel of filmed theatre much of the time – it's certainly not especially cinematic, and you could imagine it turning up as a TV premiere without it losing much of its impact.
You really can see why Allen still manages to attract good casts to his movies – he writes them big, chunky parts they can really get their teeth into, even if the characters are just a bit hokey sometimes. The main performances here are all very strong – Justin Timberlake has turned into a rather fine actor, doing good work as Mickey, who seems blissfully unaware of his own self-absorption and amorality. Juno Temple is also good. Carrying the movie, however, is a tremendous performance from Kate Winslet, who really does run the gamut of emotions in the course of the story and fully wins your sympathy. I can't remember the last time she was quite so good in anything, and a little surprised that she didn't receive more recognition for the role. (Dragged over the coals by some for her refusal to condemn Allen, or at least apologise for working with him, Winslet recently attempted to address the issue by saying she 'bitterly regretted' working with some unspecified people, a formulation unlikely to entirely please anyone.)
That said, the whole thing is thoroughly earnest, with no particular moments of lightness or comedy in it. And, once again, you can't help wishing Allen had gone through at least a couple more drafts of the script – 'I've become consumed with jealousy!' cries Ginny at one point, which is just inexcusably bad dialogue. There is perhaps a flicker of self-awareness later on with the line 'Spare me all the bad drama!' – but as this comes near the end of the film, it's a bit late for that.
Apart from Winslet's performance, the best thing about Wonder Wheel is the cinematography, which gives the whole thing a warmth and colour and life which is often missing from the script. Odd things occasionally happen here too – a scene will begin drenched in colour, with the characters almost seeming to glow, only for everything to abruptly fade to a much more subdued, naturalistic hue. If there's an artistic rationale for this, I couldn't figure it out; maybe they just ran out of money for the digital grade.
This is ultimately much more of a character piece than many recent Woody Allen movies, and this really works in the film's favour – there's no sense of a particular theme or message being clumsily rammed across – and the fact that the main relationship is between a (somewhat) older woman and a younger man means that some of the more awkward Allen tropes don't put in an appearance, either.
It's really still competent rather than great or inspired film-making, but there are enough good things about Wonder Wheel to make one think that Allen may yet have one really great film left in him. Of course, he is 82 now, and no-one would begrudge him or be especially heartbroken, I expect, were he to announce his retirement. But I think it would still be infinitely preferable if that were a decision he made on his own terms.