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


Strangers with Candy

(USA 2006)

“Hello, I’m Jerri Blank and — and I’m an alcoholic. I’m also addicted to amphetamines as well as main line narcotics. Some people say I have a sex addiction, but I think all those years of prostitution was just a means to feed my ravenous hunger for heroin. It’s kinda like the chicken or the nugget. The point is, I’m addicted to gambling. Thank you. Oh, and my daddy’s in a coma.”

“Way to go, faglick.”

“I’m thinkin’ about pussy. The science fair’s for queers.”

“I want your spermies!”

“Why doesn’t anybody like me?”

— Jerri Blank


“Everybody! Eyes to the back of the room!”

— Chuck Noblet

Those offended by juvenile potty humor and crass jokes in very poor taste — as many no doubt are offended — well, they best steer clear of Strangers with Candy, a sort of prequel to Amy Sedaris’s twisted cable TV series about depraved boozer, user, and loser Jerri Blank (Sedaris).

Those who dig this shit — like me — well, they’ll love this tawdry little farce.

As in the series, 47 year old former alcoholic, junkie, dealer, petty thief, bisexual hooker Jerri is released from prison after 32 years. She returns home to find her mother in an urn, her father (Dan Hedaya) in a coma, and her new family — “mommie” Sara (Deborah Rush) and 17 year old half-brother Derrick (Joseph Cross) — in complete shock, awe, and horror at the sight of her. They want her out.

When Jerri’s presence induces a physical reaction from her father, his doctor (Ian Holm) posits that she could be key in pulling him out of his coma by taking him back to the days before she left. The good doctor suggests that she move in and do something to make him proud.

Jerri decides to pick up where she left off: she goes back to Flatpoint High, where the faces may have changed but the hassles are just the same, and enrolls. She’s getting the diploma she never earned.

A science fair is the perfect opportunity to make her daddy proud — if only she can muster the wherewithal to participate. New BFFs outcasts Tamela (Maria Thayer) and Megawatti (Carlo Alban) are trying to keep her focused but Jerri’s more concerned with bagging class hottie and star squat thruster Brason (Chris Pratt). So much is riding on winning, not just for her father and her teammates but also shamed “science” teacher Chuck Noblet (Stephen Colbert). Can Jerri rise to the occasion?

Directed by Paul Dinello, who does double duty as art teacher Geoffrey Jellineck, and written by Dinello, Colbert, Sedaris, and Mitch Rouse, Strangers with Candy is true to its roots. Loaded with silly lines and a surprising number of celebrity cameos, it doesn’t expand on the series; in fact, it plays out like a binge watch of a season. Still, it’s a damn good time — and healthier than crack or unprotected sex. Maybe.

Oh yeah: I dare you not to let “She’s a Fig Neutron” by Gordon Grody and D-Fonz get stuck in your head. Go ‘head. No? Well, then I guess we’ll never know.

With Stephen Colbert, Gregory Hollimon, Allison Janney, Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica Parker, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Justin Theroux, Delores Duffy, Kristen Johnston, David Pasquesi, David Rakoff, Elisabeth Harnois, Alexis Dziena, Thomas Guiry

Production: Comedy Central Films, Worldwide Pants, Roberts/David Films

Distribution: THINKFilm, Front Row Filmed Entertainment (United Arab Emirates)

97 minutes
Rated R

(DVD purchase) B-