A fair number of critics have declared that they are done with Woody Allen because of his reported off-screen treatment of women.
It’s a prerequisite of writing about Allen to mention the tawdry details of his personal life. There was the scandal when, while he was in a relationship with Mia Farrow, he began a relationship with her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn. (By the way, Allen and Previn will mark their 20th wedding anniversary this month.) Or there’s the disturbing accusation by another of Farrow’s adopted daughters, Dylan, that he sexually abused her when she was 7 — an accusation Allen has consistently denied amid suggestions that Farrow coached her.
With his latest movie, the irritating melodrama “Wonder Wheel,” it’s time to call out Allen for his onscreen treatment of women — creating pathetic female characters in the thrall of callow male characters, particularly men who happen to be writers.
In “Wonder Wheel,” a period piece set in Coney Island in 1950, the woman at the center is Ginny (Kate Winslet), a former actress working as a clam-house waitress on the boardwalk, stuck in an unhappy marriage to Humpty (Jim Belushi), a semi-alcoholic carousel operator. When Ginny and Humpty come home to their meager apartment, overlooking Coney Island’s Wonder Wheel Ferris wheel, they bicker like the first draft of a lesser Eugene O’Neill play.
Both have children from their previous relationships. Ginny has a 10-year-old son, Richie (Jack Gore), with a penchant for starting fires. Humpty has an adult daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), who shows up unexpectedly, on the run from her gangster husband.
The story is narrated, quite smugly, by Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a lifeguard on the Coney Island beach who brags about his intellectual bona fides. He’s a writer, a grad student at NYU, who has an affair with Ginny because “the dramatist in me sensed she was in some kind of trouble. Her body language read ‘vulnerable and desperate.’” But when Mickey sees Carolina, an immediate mutual attraction begins.
Allen structures the entire movie around Ginny’s gradual unraveling, as she fights with Humpty, yells at Richie, seethes at Carolina’s presence and desperately seeks Mickey’s affection. Winslet gives a fierce performance, but she can’t cover for Allen’s shabby treatment of his creation, turning her increasingly pathetic and needy, a pale copy of Cate Blanchett’s character in Allen’s “Blue Jasmine.” Meanwhile, he portrays Carolina as a ditz, dangerously naive about the mob even when a couple of her husband’s goons (played by “Sopranos” alumni Tony Sirico and Steven R. Schirripa) come nosing around.
What’s worse, his real-life attitudes bleed into the dialogue. The callow Mickey parrots a variation of Allen’s infamous “the heart wants what it wants” declaration. And Ginny, in the middle of a breakdown, tosses out a stray allegation that Humpty has an “unnatural” affection for Carolina — a moment that feels like an insult-by-proxy hurled at Mia Farrow.
“Wonder Wheel” looks gorgeous, with Vittorio Storaro’s luminous cinematography capturing Santo Loquasto’s pristine production design. But with every word, Allen shows that, at 82, his view of the world and the women in it is as antiquated as an old carnival ride.
Woody Allen creates a shrill period drama, with Kate Winslet trapped as a woman desperate to find love in Coney Island, circa 1950.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When • Opens Friday, Dec. 15.
Rating • PG-13 for thematic content including some sexuality, language and smoking.
Running time • 101 minutes.