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Sometimes a movie release fits the current moment like a glove. The Post, for example, seems ripe for this cycle of high-profile clashes between the U.S. president and the press. On the other hand Wonder Wheel, from writer/director Woody Allen, comes out at very bad time for Amazon Studios, which chose this film as the first it would distribute solo.
The film hit New York critics right when the Harvey Weinstein allegations first came out, as well as accusations against Amazon Studios' then-head Roy Price, who has since resigned. At the time Allen—himself accused of sexual abuse by his daughter—added his own cherry on top of the news cycle by worrying about a “witch hunt” in the wake of the Weinstein news. Amazon Studios canceled the premiere’s red carpet.
Allen’s storytelling here doesn’t help his distributor in the current moment either: The film, set in 1950s Coney Island, portrays a lifeguard, Mickey (Justin Timberlake), torn between an affair with an older unhappily married woman named Ginny (Kate Winslet), and her stepdaughter Carolina (Juno Temple). It’s rated PG-13 for language and sexuality, specifically portrayals of the adultery between Ginny and Mickey.
Wonder Wheel has Allen's signature autobiographic allusions—after all, he married his stepdaughter. But in this plot, the married woman, rather than the triangulating suitor, is the villain. When Mickey narrates first seeing Ginny, he says, “Her body language read, ‘vulnerable.’” You can imagine the distributors cringing.
One casting problem here is that Timberlake isn’t oily enough for the pickup artist role he plays. Winslet, though, is a great, brash villain—a neurotic (of course, it's an Allen film!) former actress working as a waitress who longs for her glory days at any cost.
The film lacks a moral seriousness at its core, an unwillingness to portray the sinfulness of the other characters. You're left heaping blame on Ginny, and giving everyone else a gentle shrug. “The heart has its own hieroglyphics,” the lifeguard says, conveniently explaining his interest in his lover’s stepdaughter.
Wonder Wheel hasn’t garnered strong reviews, despite Winslet’s award-bait performance. What’s newsworthy now is how Hollywood’s award givers, previously warm to Allen, will receive his unsettling work in this “me too” season.