Wonder Wheel

(USA 2017)

For whatever difference it makes, I had no idea Woody Allen had a new movie coming out, like, now. Being a fan, I didn’t hesitate to sign onto a prerelease screening of his latest, Wonder Wheel. Now that I’ve seen it, I must say that I’m not disappointed.

Set in 1950s Coney Island — in case the title didn’t cue you in — Wonder Wheel is a tawdry story of multifaceted infidelity told by lifeguard Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a hopeful playwright attending school at New York University. An unreliable narrator, he warns us up front that he’s prone to drama. He meets middleaged Ginny (Kate Winslet), a waitress in a clamhouse, on the beach. They commence a summer affair. She takes it for more than it is. Then Mickey meets Ginny’s step-daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), who’s hiding from her Mafioso husband. He’s smitten. She’s smitten. Ginny senses it, and she’s thrown into blind jealousy. It doesn’t end well.

Wonder Wheel doesn’t feel like a Woody Allen movie, at least not at first. It’s a bit too cute, too hollow, too stiff, and perhaps surprisingly too nostalgic. The acting is forced and hammy, and the writing is…weird. Hang in there — it gets better, and it becomes clear that everything that appears to be a flaw is actually planned.

About a third of the way through, the characters show their true colors. It’s not pretty, but it all comes together nicely, melding seamlessly into a stage play. Plus, the elements of Allen’s best films — characters who are neurotic narcissists, love (or is it lust?) throwing them off, and the unmistakable reference to Alvy Singer’s boyhood home  — become apparent. It’s dark, but it’s engrossing.

Wonder Wheel is Allen’s take 20th Century American playwrights generally, and Eugene O’Neill specifically. The plot involves a fucked up family situation that brings out the worst in everyone involved, except Carolina. Winslet unravels nicely; she’s not as exciting as Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, but she’s really close. Both are strong in their own way.

Jim Belushi evokes John Goodman so much that I wonder if his part was written for Goodman. Curiously, Winslet evokes Susan Sarandon. Ironically, the only good person is the one one who digs her own grave: Carolina. The story is interesting. Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography, which makes the entire film look like it was shot at sunset, is strikingly gorgeous, tinted in dreamy reds, greens, and blues.

I can’t say Wonder Wheel is even close to Allen’s best films, but I rank it in the upper eschelon of his late period work. It’s not as good as Blue Jasmine, but it’s not far off.

With Max Casella , Jack Gore, David Krumholtz, Robert C. Kirk, Tommy Nohilly, Tony Sirico, Stephen R. Schirripa, John Doumanian, Thomas Guiry, Gregory Dann, Bobby Slayton, Michael Zegarski , Geneva Carr, Ed Jewett, Debi Mazar, Danielle Ferland, Maddie Corman, Jacob Berger, Jenna Stern

Production: Amazon Studios, Gravier Productions

Distribution: Amazon Studios

101 minutes
Rated PG-13

(AMC River East) B

Chicago International Film Festival


Lonesome [Solitude]

(USA 1928)

The promotional poster touts something “New! Different! Refreshing!” It sounds like soda, but it’s not: it’s Lonesome, a real charmer that still works as it nears its centennial.

Music Box Theatre screened a crisp restored 35mm print of Paul Fejos’s Lonesome for Reel Film Day, a countrywide event honoring films of the almost abandoned format (https://drafthouse.com/event/reel-film-day). The program was a double feature that included the Adam Sandler vehicle Punch Drunk. I didn’t stick around so I can’t comment on Punch Drunk, but Lonesome was an excellent choice.

Mary (Barbara Kent), a telephone operator for Ma Bell, and Jim (Glenn Tyron), a punch press operator in a factory, are two young working stiffs in the Big Apple. Both live alone in small rented room (not together—there’d be no movie then), and participate in an urban rat race that actually looks busier and grungier than what we have today.

Clearly, the film predates the standard five-day work week: the calendar in Mary’s room indicates that the day is Saturday, July 3. As Mary and Jim finish their respective jobs, which Fejos shows in a narrative that goes back and forth between the two, their work friends invite them to join in their weekend plans. Mary and Jim both see immediately that they’ll be the odd one out, as all of their friends are paired up. Both politely decline, going home dejectedly without any plans.

After they each see the same marching band advertising a cheap carriage ride to Coney Island, Mary and Jim end up going there solo on the same trip. They meet at the beach, and a modest flitration ensues. He tells her he’s a millionaire, and she tells him she’s a princess. They get along well, and commence an impromptu date, walking around, playing carnival games, and dancing. A fortune teller (Fred Esmelton) reveals that Mary has already met the man who will become her husband.

Mary and Jim get separated after a mishap on a rollercoaster. The problem is, they each have a tiny picture of the other from a photo booth and they only know each other’s first name. Finding each other in the throngs of people at the park that evening is like searching for a needle in a haystack. Have they lost each other before they even had a chance?

Edward T. Lowe, Jr. and Tom Reed adapt a cute story by Mann Page; it’s a simple yet clever plot. Despite its age, one point in Lonesome still rings loud and clear and true: connecting in the big city is harder than it looks. We all get wrapped up in the daily stuff of our lives, and we tend to overlook what’s right in front of us. Kent and Tyron are both adorable. Gilbert Warrenton’s kinetic camerawork captures a lot in the background, and it makes the shots at Coney Island especially fun to watch.

Lonesome features two or three abruptly placed “talking” scenes—the film was made when sound was a new thing—and the dialogue is laughably awful. There are also a few color tinted night shots: marquee lights, fireworks, stars. It’s really cheesy. That said, these are short, minor disruptions that don’t detract from enjoying this film for all its silent era charisma.

In 2010, the United States Library of Congress deemed Lonesome “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Fay Holderness, Gusztáv Pártos, Eddie Phillips, Andy Devine, Edgar Dearing

Production: Universal Pictures Corporation/Universal Pictures (USA)

Distribution: Universal Pictures Corporation/Universal Pictures (USA), European Motion Picture Company (UK), The Criterion Collection (DVD)

75 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) A

Reel Film Day: A Celebration of 35mm Cinema