The Amazon Studios film (the first they are solely distributing themselves) closes the New York Film Festival tonight and it is the obvious choice as the 50’s set drama takes place in Coney Island. In advance of its gala NYFF screening Saturday night the film was unveiled for press this morning in both New York City and Los Angeles. Winslet plays Ginny, a 40 year old frustrated wife and mother working in a dead end job as a waitress while reliving her earlier glory days as a wannabe actress. She finds brief hope for a brighter life when she embarks on a summertime affair with Mickey , a lifeguard nicely played by Justin Timberlake who seems to have the Allen dialogue rhythms down pat. He also narrates the tale speaking directly into the camera. James Belushi in perhaps his best screen role plays the devoted but gruff second husband to Ginny in a kind of Ralph Kramden manner, appropiate since this takes place right around the time The Honeymooners aired. He operates the Coney Island Carousel and gets dangerous when he hits the bottle. He has a grown daughter named Carolina, perfectly played by Juno Temple, who turns up after escaping her own unfortunate marriage to a gangster. Because of that she has a couple of thugs on her tail which complicates matters, but none more so than when Mickey finds himself attracted to her, the step daughter of the woman he is sleeping with. Add in Ginny’s own movie mad troubled young son who is basically a pint sized arsonist and you have the recipe for ripe melodrama which this movie doesn’t stint on. It actually feels like a play, the kind that populated the Broadway of the 1950s from Tennessee Williams and William Inge.
In some ways Winslet seems to be channeling Blanche DuBois , even though we have already seen anther Cate, as in Blanchett’s Oscar winning turn in Allen’s Blue Jasmine, do the
same thing. Will the magic work for Winslet , already a Best Actress winner for The Reader and a frequent nominee? It is certainly the kind of no holds barred performance actors love , with incredible monologues and highly emotional scenes. On top of her current terrific crowd pleaser , The Mountain Between Us, Winslet is burning up the screen these days and there’s no reason to think the Academy won’t recognize that, especially after seeing Wonder Wheel. She dives into this role and doesn’t let go. Although the film itself may feel too stage bound to be a sure thing for the Best Picture race (Allen’s last trip to that category was the superior Midnight In Paris) , you have to count Vittorio Storaro’s stunning cinematography , with the lights of Coney Island attractions playing against the actor’s closeups, as a real contender in that category, as well as Allen’s literate screenplay loaded with the kind of dialogue writers love. He is a frequent fixture in the Original Screenplay category , but this year the competition is especially tough there.
The fate of Wonder Wheel which doesn’t open until December 1, will largely depend on how willing audiences – Oscar voters and otherwise – are ready to buy into the kind of movie that Hollywood loved turning out in the 50’s. Think A Streetcar Named Desire, The Rose Tattoo, Desire Under The Elms and you get the picture, but this is also pure Woody Allen who, when he is on his game, has the kind of Oscar track record that can’t be ignored.
For Amazon the NYFF closing night slot gives them another key moment at the NY Film Festival where they also had the opening night movie, Last Flag Flying and the centerpiece
film, Wonderstruck, a remarkable achievement in this prestigious fest for the streamer. It also comes at a moment when Amazon Studios head Roy Price was just suspended after a 2015 sexual harrassment allegation once again came to light. It has been announced that Amazon made a decision to cancel the red carpet before the screening but no direct reason was given. Certainly the company didn’t need that distraction as they are hoping for strong awards season traction from several films including of the aforementioned films that have been playing NYFF, as well as summer indie hit The Big Sick. In their first go round with Oscar last year they landed a Best Picture nomination for Manchester By The Sea as well as two wins including Best Actor Casey Affleck (who ironically was also dogged during the Oscar campaign season by an older sexual harrassment claim ) and Best Original Screenplay.