By David Elliott
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, fresh each Friday.
Note: Nosh 93 will appear on Friday, Jan. 5, 2018.
APPETIZER: Review of Wonder Wheel.
Recently we had Wonderstruck (good film) and Wonder (didn’t see it) and, last summer, Wonder Woman (good woman). If someone brings back The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962), I will be having a wonderful time somewhere else.
Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel, named for a famous Coney Island ride, is a retro rummage sale that lives only inside Allen’s endless spool of nostalgia. In the rude, jostling, postwar ’40s, Ginny (Kate Winslet) toils at a boardwalk clam bar (shades of Susan Sarandon serving oysters in Atlantic City). Her waitressing (shades of Winslet in Todd Haynes’s fine Mildred Pierce) is essentially rehearsal for domestic duty as the drudge wife of Coney workin’ slob Humpty (Jim Belushi, also quite a Dumpty).
Into their idyll of slow rot in a fading fun zone come figures crammed with aching dialog and melodramatic destiny. Humpty’s cute daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) returns, pursued by mobsters. Dreamy lifeguard hunk and aspiring writer Mickey (Justin Timberlake) talks about Hamlet, as if wanting him on rye bread, with some Method mustard (Timberlake, though fairly subtle, often seems to be channeling Ray Liotta from GoodFellas).
Mickey makes a hot play for Ginny, who’s thrilled, and then Carolina, who’s hopeful. Primitive Humpty growls, bellows, threatens and pleads. If you ever imagined Ernest Borgnine playing Stanley Kowalski, Jim Belushi delivers, in a Marty manner. The earthy ape is the only figure attuned to common sense, but like everyone he cooks in Allen’s drama stew, which has oodles of Odets, chunks of Chayefsky, winks of Williams, explicit mentions of O’Neill and Greek tragedy, obvious debts to Simon (Brighton Beach Memoirs) and Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice). Vittorio Storaro, usually superb, photographed by infusing so much stagey, rusty-orange twilight that the steamy emotions begin to barbecue. As surplus heat, Ginny’s bored, angry kid is an arsonist, and during a kiss a torch song wails about a “kiss of fire.”
Allen is 82, and this is his 47th feature as director-writer. The perennial “why?” nagging Woody’s career is how he can still make some good entertainments, while awkwardly panting for approval as a serious artist (as if good comedy were not serious work). There is quite enough honest, show-savvy pathos in Annie Hall and Broadway Danny Rose for any good career. Digging for depth, he is less a writer than an underliner. On his messy boardwalk of broken dreams we can smell the saltwater taffy rotting. This is Allen’s worst picture since Interiors, the 1978 snooze bomb that appeared to be tracking chilly Edward Albee on the angst-frozen tundra of Ingmar Bergman. That was ice, this is fire, they’re both crap.
The one stuck with the tab is Kate Winslet. I’ve never seen her give a bad performance, but Woody grinds her down. He gives her a big memory speech in achingly dull close-up. Later he dumbly cuts away, squishing her cri de coeur “Rescue me.” Living with a fat frog who can never be a prince, fearing her allure fading, Ginny is a pathos puppet. Allen even gives her vapors of Blanche Du Bois craziness. That derivation mostly worked for Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, but Winslet just looks blue and wasted. It’s as if she escaped the Titanic only to beach at Coney Island with a bad screenplay.
SALAD (A List)
The Dozen Best Leading Performances in Woody Allen Movies, ranked by my taste, naturally: Judy Davis in Husbands and Wives (1992), Martin Landau in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Diane Keaton in Annie Hall (1977), Michael Caine in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Jeff Daniels in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Mia Farrow in Broadway Danny Rose (1984), Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris (2011), Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine (2013), Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite (1985), Scarlett Johansson in Match Point (2006), Woody Allen in Zelig (1983), Samantha Morton in Sweet and Lowdown (1989).
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Orson decants a vintage memory for pal Henry Jaglom: “(Critic) George Jean Nathan was the tightest man who ever lived. He lived for 40 years in the Hotel Royalton and never tipped anybody in the Royalton, not even at Christmas time. (Finally) the room-service waiter peed slightly in Nathan’s tea. The waiters hurried across the street and told everyone at the Algonquin … As the years went by, there got to be more and more urine, less and less tea. And it was a great pleasure for us in the theater to look at a leading critic and know he was full of piss. And I, with my own ears, heard him at ‘21’ complaining to a waiter, ‘Why can’t I get tea here as good as at the Royalton?” (From My Lunches With Orson, by Jaglom.)
ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Alec Guinness did a lot more good work after his 1950s prime, including “delicate fun being starchy in the Cuban sun of Our Man in Havana. Co-star Noel Coward snapped in his diary that ‘Alec has cultivated a zombie-like equilibrium, heavy on the Librium.’ Recessive brooding and pregnant silences found their summation on TV in spy George Smiley, who suggests a sand clock yearning for dust, yet so humanly. Smiley, a Brit-Zen sphinx, goes far past Gunnness’s wise Jedi knight in Star Wars (loving the income, Alec found the fan crowd a bore).” (From the Alec Guinness/The Horse’s Mouth chapter in my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Kindle, Nook and Amazon.)
DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.
Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) savors his Roman terrace vista in The Great Beauty (Janus Films, 2013; director Paolo Sorrentino, cinematographer Luca Bigazzi).
For previous Noshes, scroll below.