On film, Woody Allen can amuse, irritate and perplex. He gives us movies that will last for years followed by flicks we barely remember. Because he continues, well into his 80s, to make a movie every year, he gets to issue a dud now and then. But he never bores. Even when Allen frustrates, he makes us want to watch.

Wonder Wheel, which closed this year’s New York Film Festival, can be as touching as any film from the Allen collection. And as frustrating. When Kate Winslet, in a bravura turn, describes the sadness in her life, we share her pain, identify with her emptiness. We know this woman doesn’t intend to irritate. It comes naturally. After all she suffers in a small apartment at Coney Island, raises a son who likes to start fires and endures nonstop criticism from a disconnected husband. But she refuses to change her life, choosing to relish in the misery that defines her. This lady knows life brings few guarantees for greener grass.

Winslet’s character, a waitress in a Coney Island dive, would be at home in the Broadway theater of the 1950s, not because the film is set in that period. She is first cousin to fascinating characters from shows of that time. Think about the slovenly lead in William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba or the desperate women that inhabit his play Picnic. Consider Clifford Odets’ study of middle-aged misery in The Country Girl or Robert Anderson’s take on romantic frustration in Tea and Sympathy. These playwrights explored how women of the sensible 1950’s refused to articulate their anger preferring, instead, to cover sadness with synthetic arrangements. Their words capture how people can smother sadness with affection and adoration. And how, beneath the surface, people can long to be touched by those who appreciate vulnerabilities, celebrate disappointments and internalize despair.

As long as Wonder Wheel examines a woman trapped in this time, the film soars. Allen captures the rhythm of the decade as well as its exaggerated manner of theatrical performance. But he refuses to simply tell the story. Instead he stuffs the movie with unnecessary reminders that we’re watching a Woody Allen film. Justin Timberlake’s superficial one liners sound like outtakes from other Allen films. Jim Belushi’s over-the-top parody of the character Stanley Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire feels like a sketch from Allen’s trunk. The men take too much screen time from Kate Winslet’s perfect rendition of 1950’s sadness. Her heartbreaking portrayal is filled with feeling and expression. But Allen lets the men undermine the story and the actress. Her movie works; theirs sounds like a rehash of Allen’s exaggerated views of himself.

Visually, the film shines with a rich production we don’t always see in the director’s films. If Allen had been as careful with what he put into his movie as he is about how his movie looks, this could have been one of his great ones. Instead Wonder Wheel emerges as a confused concoction that gets in the way of a beautifully modulated performance. Sadly, it’s one of Woody Allen’s film that we will quickly forget.

Film Nutritional Value: Wonder Wheel

  • Content: High. While Woody Allen may borrow from his own library of complications, the movie pays tribute to the 1950s theatrics of William Inge, Robert Anderson and Clifford Odets.
  • Entertainment: Medium. Thanks to Kate Winslet’s performance, a lavish looking production and a strong sense of presence, Wonder Wheel delivers almost as much as it promises.
  • Message: Medium. While the film tries to examine the layers of disappointment in its heroine’s life, Allen lets too many of his comic habits get in the way.
  • Relevance: Medium. Any opportunity to watch any Woody Allen movie is worth the time.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. While you won’t find yourself repeating any of Woody’s unnecessary one liners, you will leave the theater savoring Winslet’s striking performance.

Wonder Wheel is rated PG-13 for thematic content, some sexuality, language and smoking. The film runs 1 hour, 41 minutes. 3-1/2 (of 5) Popcorn Buckets.

Blue Jasmine: Allen hits truthful high note

By Mark Schumann

Father of Three

While Wonder Wheel examines the truths that Kate Winslet may try to hide, Woody Allen’s masterful Blue Jasmine, from 2013, explores how people hide truth from themselves and rewrite history that becomes too painful. In both films, Allen explores how people handle truth in their lives by focusing on the humor they naturally reveal. But Jasmine works in a contemporary setting while Wonder Wheel returns to the look, feel and theatrics of the 1950’s.

With a situation as fresh as today, and a leading character as complex as the best of serious drama, Blue Jasmine an irresistible examination of how people start the rewrite when truth becomes too painful. While the fiction they create may entertain observers, every exaggerated event prevents forward movement. The film reminds us that, only when people confront what actually happens can they authentically progress. But our Woody is too savvy a filmmaker to deliver a lecture. While the film is as serious as any Allen work, it’s also as entertaining as the best of his collection because he never forgets that the best comedy begins with tragedy.

Cate Blanchett, in a tour-de-force for which she won her second Oscar, portrays a woman trying to deal with the trauma of significant change. We first see her telling the story of her life to a lucky woman sitting next to her on a cross-country flight. Without drawing breath, she rattles all the way to baggage claim about her fascinating experiences, as if trying to convince herself that it all actually happened. As Allen cleverly reveals in flashbacks, she was once the rich wife of a successful businessman until the world discovered he skipped the rules. Now this product of a carefully protected world — who introduces herself as being “from Park Avenue” rather than simply “from New York” — must confront the realities of getting a job, making ends meet and connecting with people outside her limited scope. Adding to her challenge are complicated relationships with her stepson, who drops out of her life, and her sister, who offers her a place to regroup.

The way Allen develops the relationship between the sisters, and the lead character’s love for illusion, pays tribute to Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, an interesting parallel for anyone lucky enough to see Blanchett play Blanche a few years ago in Brooklyn. But Allen and Blanchett do much more than salute a literary classic — they create a woman so magnetic, and so frightening, that she never knows what she will say or do next. Blanchett’s performance is so filled with sterling moments that, when she was an Oscar victor, choosing which film clip to show at the ceremony must have been a challenge.

Since 1965, Woody Allen has made us laugh, and inspired us to think, about many people and situations. He never resists the opportunity to reach beyond the predictable to discover something about people that may inspire us to look at ourselves. Blue Jasmine dares to challenge our concepts of truth as it entertains in a truthful way. And it’s an ideal bookend to Wonder Wheel.

Film Nutritional Value: Blue Jasmine

  • Content: High. Blue Jasmine lures us into the interesting life of a woman prone to exaggeration, self-promotion and denial of truth.
  • Entertainment: High. Even though the relationships are complex, and the content serious, the film ranks with the best of Woody Allen’s comedies because of how it handles truth.
  • Message: High. The film challenges us to look at ourselves, how we confront and accept truth, and the temptation to rewrite what we don’t like to remember.
  • Relevance: High. Any opportunity to consider these issues, especially in such a well-created film, is worth the time and money.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this film, talk with your older children about their experiences learning from the truths they experience.

Blue Jasmine is Rated PG-13 for “thematic material and language.” It runs 98 minutes.