Woody Allen’s progress as a writer-director through the 21st century, which began when he was already 64, roughly resembles a consistent electrocardiogram reading, in which mild troughs follow sudden bumps, or vice versa.
After the memorable Sweet and Lowdown (1999) was followed by an unusual run of four mediocre films, the Dostoyevskian Match Point (2005) marked a major return to form. The weak Hitchcockian comedy-suspense Scoop (2006) and the dreadful Cassandra’s Dream (2007) were followed by the captivating Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008).
The mildly audacious Whatever Works (2009) preceded the forgettable You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010) and the delightful Midnight in Paris (2011). To Rome With Love (2012) was a bit of an embarrassment; Blue Jasmine (2013) was a triumph for Cate Blanchett.
The charming Magic in the Moonlight (2014) was followed by the bleakly existential Irrational Man (2015), which was no match for Match Point. From a dramatic perspective, Café Society (2016) was one of Allen’s better forlorn love stories, but Allen’s voiceover narration was poor and the film looked unusually garish given that it was photographed by the great Vittorio Storaro.
Still, this is an outstanding record for a filmmaker who will turn 82 on December 1.
Storaro has also lensed Allen’s latest—more coolly, the early stills suggest, than he did Café Society.
Plot details are typically scant: in 1950s Coney Island, according to the press release, Justin Timberlake’s lifeguard tells a story that may or may not be an invention: “A middle-aged carousel operator (James Belushi) and his beleaguered wife (Kate Winslet), who eke out a living on the boardwalk, are visited by his estranged daughter (Juno Temple)—a situation from which layer upon layer of all-too-human complications develop.” Debi Mazar and Tony Sirico are also in the cast.
The looks on Winslet’s face in the stills suggest that her character owes something to her Mildred Pierce (in Todd Haynes’s towering 2011 miniseries) and to Barbara Stanwyck’s Mae Doyle—newly returned to Monterey after 10 years away—in Fritz Lang’s noirish melodrama Clash by Night (1952); note that Clifford Odets’ original play wasn’t set in California but in an oppressive seaside town in Staten Island.
Clash by Night‘s influence on Wonder Wheel is not confirmed. If it has a whisper of truth in it, expect Juno Temple’s character (pictured top with Timberlake and Winslet) to bear traces of Marilyn Monroe’s in the Lang film.
And if Winslet has given the powerhouse performance she is said to have done, it may be enough to elevate the melodrama to the level of Blue Jasmine. Auspiciously, Kent Jones, New York Film Festival’s director and selection committee chair, has spoken of the film’s “mounting emotional power.”
Winslet has only received one Oscar nomination—for her supporting term in Steve Jobs (2016)—since her performance in The Reader (2009) won her the Best Actress award. She is due for another Best Actress Oscar campaign, so the omens for Wonder Wheel are good.
Following Wonder Wheel‘s NYFF bow, Amazon Studios will open it on December 1—a major step into theatrical distribution for the streaming giant. Amazon previously financed Café Society and Allen’s 2016 TV series Crisis in Six Scenes.