Reviewed by Lee Hill
If you want a review of Wonder Wheel, Woody Allen’s 48th feature film as writer and director, the following will prove disappointing or perhaps, even upsetting. Go ahead cry, fume, tsk tsk or rant – tweet if I care. This is a meta-review of Wonder Wheel (not to be confused with Woody Allen Summer Project 2017 aka A Rainy Day in New York, which may or may not be the last summer project ever depending on where we all are this time in six months). It is a response to the lazy, armchair moralizing that has passed for film criticism and to a lesser, but still crucial extent, the tenor of activism via social media when Allen’s name comes up.
For rhetorical (and because lists are fun) purposes, here are my 10 (plus 1) reasons to stop worrying and learn not to hate Woody Allen:
1. Woody Allen is Not A Lazy Filmmaker, But A Lot of Film Critics Are: In addition to the many crimes and misdemeanors Allen has been accused of lately, the autopilot diktat is that Allen makes too many films and recycles his themes and ideas. Now some of my best friends are film critics and obviously one of those friends is me, but I am not sure I would trust many of them (including myself) to look after a house plant let alone dispense advice on how to sustain a production model that allows one to plan, write, shoot and release a film every year where you have final cut since 1971 (the year Banana’s, Allen’s third feature, became part of a remarkable deal with United Artists, and the template for the creative freedom he has sustained since). Of course, artists recycle/rework/remake/remodel ideas and themes close to their heart. That quality is often aligned to a restless desire to perfect. Critics, of course, never repeat themselves except perhaps when saying “[Insert Film Title Here]” is a work of genius.”
2. Each Generation Gets its Day in the Spotlight to Whine: Yes, many millennials, who get all their essential information from Snapchat and think “plagiarism” is a former Iron Curtain satellite, are annoying, but so are most idealistic young adults. In 1947, Bogart, Bacall and a gang of fellow show business pals flew to Washington as part of the Committee to Defend the First Amendment as the first chill winds of McCarthyism hit LaLa Land. Their fervor and team spirit barely lasted the year as one studio head and exec after another joined the call for blacklisting. Fighting the good fight got complicated. A lot of people went back to making movies (Bogart and Bacall included). Some gave names. Some didn’t and went to jail or lost their jobs. Some ended up in exile.
See also: the hippies who became yuppies and future Tea Party members, anarchistic punks now owning multiple rental properties in Sussex, the former slackers who are now toxic bosses. The Moral: Progress is a long-term commitment not just a summer fling.
3. Because Woody Allen is Still the Woody Allen: Just as Paul McCartney will always be an ex- Beatle despite the post-Wings misfires and Orson Welles was the “failure” who made Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, Chimes of Midnight et al, Allen’s detractors still have to admit his influence is everywhere. When the likes of Judd Apatow want to get serious, the template in the back of their minds is Woody Allen. When Noah Baumbach was looking for his Diane Keaton, was it simple fate that brought Greta Gerwig to his door or the ghost of mumblecore past, present and future?
4. He’s Survived More Bad Patches Than Most People Can Handle a Wrong Latte Order: “A Rainy Day in New York could be Allen’s last movie!” scream hacks and hackettes on the interweb. Given that Allen is 82 and has had entire careers with the likes of UA, TriStar, DreamWorks, Sweet-land/Miramax (where he ended up in a legal dispute with Jean Doumanian, a long-time friend and business partner) and more recently, Amazon Studios, do these apron tuggers really think Allen is worried he may never make another movie again. And when Allen reshoots an entire film (as he did with chunks of Annie Hall and September) it is for genuine artistic reasons not out of some weird mix of Stalinism meets the Beverley Hills Polo Lounge-certainly not for all the money in the world.
5. Speaking of Recurring Themes: if you are a filmgoer who isn’t easily unhinged by tabloid finger wagging or social media snark, you may have noticed that a lot of Allen’s films are about how we, to echo Joan Didion, tell ourselves stories in order to live. Wonder Wheel is told by a callow, unreliable narrator. Zelig is a faux documentary. Hannah and Her Sisters has a Tolstoyan arc. Radio Days was a homage to a media that shaped his childhood. And so on.
6. Not Just Roles for Younger Women: see Dianne Wiest, Cate Blanchett, Maureen Stapleton, Parker Posey, Patricia Clarkson, Judy Davis, etc.…As Allen confessed in the documentary, Casting By, his casting choices are greatly influenced by advice and counsel from Juliet Taylor, who worked for him for over 40 years.
And few of his male characters are depicted in flattering terms. In Deconstructing Harry, Allen portrayed a narcissistic fantasist, who uses his fiction to settle scores, deny the past and basically, pay for his sex addiction.
7. Not Just Actors and Actresses Love (or Used to Love) Allen: He’s worked with not just some of the best cinematographers in the business, but the greatest – Gordon Willis, Carlo DiPalma, Sven Nykvist, Darius Khondji, Vilmos Zisgmond and Vittorio Storaro. If all you can think about when you see Manhattan is a seemingly inappropriate relationship between an older man and a younger woman, perhaps you need your eyes checked.
Unlike the development execs at Marvel Studios, Allen also knows how to bring a film in under the two-hour mark. For years he worked with Susan Morse as his main editor from Manhattan to Celebrity. More recently it has been Alisa Elspeter.
8. He Can Handle Big Egos: Sam Shepard, Michael Keaton and Bruce Willis were all replaced in the early stages of Allen films. Just because Allen is skinny, and wears glasses doesn’t mean you can push him around. As for those actors – Rebecca Hall, Ellen Page or Michael Caine – who refuse to work with Allen again: was he asking to work with you again?
9. Allen is as American as Baseball: Allen may be influenced by Fellini and Bergman, but his films owe as much to the influence of Salinger, Cheever, Updike and Philip Roth. Allen is an American steeped in the culture he grew up in – The New Yorker, the borscht belt, television variety shows, the satire/black comedy boom of the late 50s, the dramas of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Clifford Odets…and politically he has been a left-of-centre Democrat (his participation in Martin Ritt’s The Front is probably the clearest expression of where he stands on certain issues). We also know Allen is a sports fan – basketball and baseball…and of course, there is the long involvement in the Dixieland jazz band immortalized in Barbara Kopple’s documentary, Wild Man Blues.
10. And If He is Guilty: Well, we know Polanski is guilty (he even wrote about his guilt in his 1985 autobiography and people still see his films, in part because no one quite does the greys of life with such technicolor brilliance as Polanski) and no one I know who has watched any of Polanski films has suddenly died like the characters in The Ring. This is not to say that we won’t watch Allen’s films differently, but I suspect we will still watch his films. Hell, if we can read Celine, we can deal with Allen (and by the way, no one is forcing you to do either). Free expression is often met by mega indifference by democracy at large. When #MeToo takes out the likes of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson or Vladimir Putin, we will know we really have awoken from a dystopian nightmare in progress.
10 plus 1: Art Does Not Exist to Help Your Sort Out Your Problems: I am all for a great book, album, painting or well-cut suit inspiring people to live their dreams, but we should never forget that the reason art often touches us is precisely because of its eccentricity, rough edges, contradictions and the murky, unresolved lives of its creators. While it is a good idea to seek perfection in a new hoover or the track record of the doctor about to perform laser eye surgery on your cornea, perfection in art is a goal, but not the end of the goal if you get my Nietzsche reference. Or as Kafka memorably wrote, “how can I understand the Jews when I can’t even understand myself.” Or perhaps it was diarist and composer Ned Rorem who said it best, when he wrote “great art does not open doors, it closes them.”
In closing, if art (or just Woody Allen) bothers you, you always have the gym.
Lee Hill is the Author of Easy Rider, a BFI Modern Classic.