It is now routine that when Woody Allen releases a new movie, he is already working on another one, committed to enrich his long filmography with a one-film-per-year policy. Considered as a reassurance for his fans, it is also a point of attack for some critics, who persist in judging his movies as “too similar to each other”, encouraging the director to carefully produce more sporadic and dedicated works. Yet, negatively comparing his latest movies to his timeless masterpieces is certainly an error. Each film stands on its own, and even if Irrational Man (2015) and Café Society (2016) were not as innovative and ground-breaking as Manhattan (1979), they were still among the most interesting and worth watching films of their season: a Woody Allen film must be seen regardless of the critical feedback.
The New Yorker director’s latest enterprise, Wonder Wheel (2017), is no exception. There is no doubt in Allen’s unique mastery in minutely reconstructing past eras, travelling back in time by impeccably recreating the perfect atmosphere. This year, the eighty-two-year-old filmmaker brings us to iconic 1950s’ Coney Island, which, with its bright colours, carousels and accordion music, creates the stage for his characters’ intimate vicissitudes. An oppressive scenario which recalls the scenes of a stage play, convoluted into moral and material dilemmas expressed through the pessimistic and gloomy monologues of the protagonists: a quintet of poor souls from the ‘50s, which seems immediately schematic and banal as they are closer to theatrical masks than cinematographic figures. They are pre-established characters, which cannot change or develop throughout the film, and are already well-known before they enter the scene. Thus, the failed actress remains the frustrated waitress, the vulgar husband keeps being a drunkard, the handsome lifeguard the insecure, aspiring writer with a superficial affection for poetry, and the mobsters, well, just mobsters, with their waxed hair and stereotypical guns. In other words, no one rises from the well-crafted pages of the script to transform the painful skirmishes of life into a universal perception of its tragic limitation. The breathtaking performances of the cast, particularly an impeccable Kate Winslet and a “resurrected” Jim Belushi, are essential to the film’s emotional strength as its narrative relies completely on the actors.
In the vast majority of Allen’s movies, there is a character who is meant to represent the author himself; on this occasion, Justin Timberlake is entrusted with this legacy, casted as the romantic writer framed into an unpleasant love triangle, delivering however a flat and unrealistic performance which does not match the highly dramatic ones of his co-stars. Yet, the most remarkable quality of Wonder Wheel is the overwhelming cinematography by the master Vittorio Storaro, who exploits Coney Island’s vivid colours to match the protagonists’ feelings and psychological framework. Each frame is a painting, stored in a picture gallery, nicely wrapping up the film as a candy. Cinematography aside, it is true that, this time, Allen grants very few occasions to cheer up the audience. The only classical, ‘Allenian’ humoristic element is the pyromaniac kid, who randomly sets up fires throughout the whole film. Just as a ferris wheel, Woody Allen never stops his cycle, continuing undeterred to juggle between humor and romance, chaos and drama, life and fiction, never losing his substantial nostalgic vein which has always distinguished his works, and made him one of the most addictive, idiosyncratic and sentimental cinematic figures of all time. For his aficionados, there is nothing else to do, if not to impatiently wait for his next work, already in post-production, A Rainy Day in New York (2018).