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Cinematographer is the star of 'Wonder Wheel'

There is a very good reason for seeing Woody Allen's new film "Wonder Wheel," but I'm afraid that it's going to be almost exclusively evident to Woody Allen professionals, i.e. those of us who have literally spent decades seeing everything he's put out since "What's Up, Tiger Lily" at the beginning (in which he, hilariously, re-dubbed a chopsocky movie with such dialogue as "take that, you Saracen dog."). If you're just an intermittently fond non-pro looking for a good movie, there are so many better films to see.

The good reason for seeing this movie is 82-year-old Allen's collaboration with one of the greatest of all living cinematographers, 77-year-old Italian master Vittorio Storaro, the man who photographed Warren Beatty's "Reds," Bertolucci's "The Conformist" and "Last Tango in Paris," and Coppola's "Apocalypse, Now." They worked together on Allen's "Cafe Society" but that collaboration doesn't begin to prepare you for the sumptuous gliding camera and gorgeous chromatic palette of Storaro's vision of Coney Island in the 1950s.

The place itself, in the tale, is clearly on the skids from its heyday.  It's the very early '50s where the music on the soundtrack is likely to be Jo Stafford's "You Belong to Me" or Kay Starr's "Wheel of Fortune." What director and cinematographer give us is a 21st century update of outrageous '50s technicolor. Half of the women in "Wonder Wheel" seem to have red hair. The color functions as Storaro's baseline. (In so many of his films, it's a patented color we might call Storaro Orange.)

Allen has been teaming with the best throughout his professional life. He's always known who the great directors of photography are - Gordon Willis ("Annie Hall," "Zelig," "Manhattan"), Bergman's man Sven Nykvist ("Crimes and Misdemeanors," "Interiors"), Antonioni's man Carlo DiPalma ("Shadows and Fog"), Robert Altman's man Vilmos Zsigmond ("Melinda & Melinda").

Those who aren't movie aesthetes wowed by the look of the film will find themselves saddled with Allen's odd late-life desire to get into the same artistic business as Tennessee Williams (see Allen's finest film in years "Blue Jasmine"), Arthur Miller and Eugene O'Neill.

He's been imitating purer and greater artists during his whole career, whether we're talking about Bergman and writer John Cheever ("Interiors"), Federico Fellini ("Stardust Memories") and John Cassavetes ("Husbands and Wives"). In fact, I've finally figured out how to connect this new Allen in "Wonder Wheel" with its American theatrical tragedy to the earlier comic near-genius so many of us still treasure.

It's simple really. Think of where he started--as a writer's assistant for Sid Caesar, where the honored maniacs were Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart and Neil Simon. Amid so much brilliant talent, young Allen was a minor player, an apprentice. But, obviously, he and Mel Brooks both were permanently impressed with those writers' attempts to do some Caesar show pastiches of great works by others.

If you think of some of Allen's latest films ("Blue Jasmine" and now this), they're just serious versions of the kind of takeoffs that were comedy procedure in Caesar's writers' room. So much of Allen's career is that, whether the results are serious or comic.

So the good thing for the filmmaker--if not for his former family with Mia Farrow--is that Allen can get almost anyone he wants in his movies. What that means here is Kate Winslet wildly overplaying Ginny, a former actress who is now a waitress at a Coney Island clam bar in 1950-51. She is having an affair with a lifeguard/playwriting grad student (Justin Timberlake) while she's married to Humpty (Jim Belushi), a tempestuous reformed drunk who has a Coney Island merry-go-round concession.

Things go sharply South when Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty's daughter from his first marriage, shows up fleeing from the cronies of her gangster husband. That's what happens when you're an FBI informant. To complicate things needlessly, Ginny has a pyromaniac son from her first marriage.

You don't have to be keenly perceptive to see Allen's snobbery toward these characters. He's making fun of Timberlake as a kind of naive NYU grad student who would ostentatiously read Ernest Jones' "Hamlet and Oedipus" on his lifeguard stand, (Jones was Freud's friend and official biographer); or "Carolina" and or "Humpty" (what, no "Dumpty?").

Winslet and Belushi are allowed to go so far over the top in their angry scenes that I wondered if the movie might have been immeasurably improved by a far less permissive director (and a far less expository script).

The writer-director and the performers all seem unhappily trapped in this movie. The only one behaving like a glorious artist here is legendary cinematographer Storaro.

"Wonder Wheel"

Two and a half star out of four

Kate Winslet, Justin Timberlake, Jim Belushi and Juno Temple in Woody Allen's melodrama about a romantic rectangle in Coney Island during the 1950s. 101 minutes. Rated PG-13 for language.


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