When the long-circulated rumors about Louis C.K.’s sexual misconduct finally became reported (and then confirmed) allegations, his movie, I Love You, Daddy went from seeming like a coy attempt to skirt the issue to the equivalent of a clue left behind by a remorseful killer. Preparing to watch the film, Slate’s Dana Stevens wrote, was “like waiting for the other shoe to drop,” to which the New Yorker’s Richard Brody responded, “The film is itself a shoe.”
I Love You, Daddy was also a feature-length homage to and subtweet of Manhattan, the movie by C.K.’s idol, Woody Allen, in which Allen’s 42-year-old comedy writer dates Mariel Hemingway’s 17-year-old high school student. Although it was nominated for two Academy Awards and revered for years as a romantic masterpiece, that movie took on a sinister edge when it was revealed that Allen had been having an affair with Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his longtime partner, Mia Farrow, that began when Previn was about the age of Hemingway’s character. And it became downright unwatchable, at least for many, when Dylan Farrow, Allen’s adopted daughter, came forward in 2014 to publicly accuse Allen of sexually assaulting her when she was 7. That allegation first emerged in 1993, but it was largely dismissed at the time, or at least filed alongside the great unknowables, and Allen was allowed to continue making movies unscathed. (In a custody battle, the court found the evidence against Allen “inconclusive” but found the testimonies against him credible enough to prove that his behavior was “grossly inappropriate” and denied him custody.) With the help of Time magazine, Allen was able to position his sexual relationship with Previn as a case of love triumphing over all. “The heart wants what it wants,” Allen told Walter Isaacson in a Q&A teased on the magazine’s cover. “You meet someone and you fall in love and that’s that.”
That’s also a good description of the plot of Allen’s Wonder Wheel, which played the New York Film Festival last month and arrives in theaters this weekend. The film is centered on Ginny (Kate Winslet), a former small-time actress who, as she puts it, is now “playing the part of a waitress in a clam house.” But it’s narrated by Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a Coney Island lifeguard who is working his way towards a master’s in theater. In Wonder Wheel’s first shots, the camera drifts past bathers in 1950s swimwear and finds Mickey’s face, as he warns us that what we’re about to see may not be entirely based in reality: “As a poet, I use symbols, and as a budding dramatist, I relish melodrama and larger-than-life characters.”
The most sympathetic reading of Wonder Wheel is that it’s deliberately staged as the work of a novice playwright, populated with overdrawn characters and overheated situations. The scenes in Ginny’s apartment, which she shares with her husband, Humpty (Jim Belushi), and, eventually, his estranged daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), play like a regional production of Tennessee Williams, often filmed in long, mobile takes as if Vittorio Storaro’s camera has just wandered onstage. At one point, Belushi brushes his fingers along the underside of his chin and flicks them forward as if he’s just come from a seminar on working-class gestures.
Enter Mickey, as Mickey himself would write. Timberlake plays him as a guileless dope, one who’s oblivious to the way first Ginny and then Carolina look at him until he’s involved with the one and verging on a relationship with the other. In other words, Wonder Wheel is about a man who’s sleeping with a woman and starts being attracted to her stepdaughter. That man, further, is an aspiring playwright who might have been born in the 1930s (he is played as substantially younger than Timberlake’s 36) and who totes around a copy of a book called Hamlet and Oedipus, both frequent touchstones for Allen’s movies. (Like Allen, whose movies are sometimes the equivalent of an “Ask Me About Ingmar Bergman” T-shirt, he sometimes seems better at displaying his intellect than employing it.) Although he says he one day hopes to write a “profound masterpiece,” Mickey seems more in love with the idea of being an artist—and the freedom from societal norms that would allow him—than the work of becoming one. He doesn’t love Ginny, although she’s increasingly obsessed with him, but he’s flush with the idea that their affair “somehow fits into the romantic narrative of the writer’s life.” The heart wants what it wants—or, as the bohemian friend Mickey asks for advice counsels him, “The heart has its own hieroglyphics.”
The overlap with Allen’s life only gets more pronounced as Wonder Wheel proceeds to its climax. (The following contains spoilers, if it is possible to spoil something that is rancid to begin with.) Ginny, whose tether to reality has grown dangerously thin, begins to suspect that something is afoot with Mickey and Carolina, and after a broad gesture to demonstrate her affection triggers Mickey’s fear of commitment, she sees the mob goons who have been searching for Carolina throughout the entire movie about to close in on her and does nothing to prevent her death.
It’s not the first movie Allen has made in the past few years about a woman who betrays her husband, and it’s as if he were frustrated that not enough people saw Mia Farrow in Blue Jasmine’s delusional, disloyal socialite. (That movie, if you need a refresher, ends with the revelation that Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine took vengeance on her husband, after discovering that he cheated on her, by turning him in to the FBI. The final shot shows her alone on a park bench, rambling incoherently to herself.)
Wonder Wheel all but draws you a schematic: Actress with shaky grip on reality, enraged by her romantic partner’s affair with her younger stepdaughter, commits unforgivable crime to sabotage their relationship, and winds up bereft and alone. Substitute in manufacturing charges of sexual assault and indoctrinating a child to corroborate them—Allen’s account of Farrow’s behavior—for sending a young woman to her death, and it’s a snug fit.
In that sense, Wonder Wheel is the opposite of a mea culpa. Allen has constructed an entire world, including an elaborate replica of Coney Island’s boardwalk, for the purposes of once more indicting his former partner and exonerating himself. But the fact that he has to construct that world himself, and not only that, but to filter it through a thick layer of theatrical artifice, feels strangely like an admission. He’s not changing his story, but even its most careful presentation—and, to the extent it is possible to separate form from content, Wonder Wheel is a beautiful movie, elegantly designed and shot—still seems like a hollow, trumped-up fraud. It’s telling that Mickey, so eager to get the audience on his side at the beginning of the movie, is absent from its ending, replaced by Ginny and Humpty’s young son, whose only defining characteristic is that he’s fond of starting fires. The last thing we see is him down by the ocean, watching a pile of wood scraps burn. The creative spirit is gone. All that remains is the compulsion to destroy.