The press seems to have effectively ended Woody Allen's career by letting actors know they'll be shamed if they choose to work with him. I'm opposed to this on moral grounds -- I think history will view it as blacklist-y -- but, having seen Wonder Wheel, I'm not sure it matters much in terms of depriving us of potential great art.
I say this not because I think Wonder Wheel is awful. In fact, I think, like Cafe Society, the film has its fascinating elements, But, while, after seeing Cafe Society, I thought maybe Woody had it in him to still create a great film if he got all his ducks in a row, after seeing Wonder Wheel, I'm inclined to think he can no longer distinguish between a good idea and a bad one, a workable concept and a disastrous one, so we'd be doomed to a succession of half-assed efforts where effective moments are drowned out by dire ones.
It's easy to pick out the flaws in Wonder Wheel -- the borrowing BJ notes from mid-century drama (Justin Timberlake doing his Larry Slade/Iceman monologues, a View from the Bridge-ish father looking too longingly at his daughter, Kate Winslet near the end doing full-on late Act Two Blanche); the way every scene inside the apartment feels like it's staged for proscenium; an over-reliance on voice-over narration. But one can't dismiss the strong points: the visualization of Coney Island as simultaneous fantasy paradise and point of desperation (both effectively conveyed by Storaro's superb cinematography); the occasional graceful narrative moment (the way the gangsters' initial pass-through is referred to as "the shadow of death"); some wonderful backstory monologues written for (and beautifully performed by) Winslet; and, above all, a stunning late-film moment that is so logical yet startling that it stops you cold. If this were a fully-realized film, this would be a moment that would be spoken of in the same breath with classic scenes -- Michael Corleone in the Italian restaurant; Holly Martens deciding to turn on Harry Lime; Ratso Rizzo confessing he can't walk anymore. Even if the film just worked as flat-out melodrama, it could rank with Gene Tierney's decision in Leave Her to Heaven. But Allen vitiates it almost entirely by having Timberlake parse out the entire sequence and explain it laboriously/literally -- which drains the film of its last ounce of juice.
I can see both why Kate Winslet was rumored to be seriously in the Oscar conversation and why she dropped out in the end. She has individual moments that are absolutely stellar: her under-the-boardwalk monologue about how her dream relationship fell apart is beautifully written, wonderfully performed, and Allen gives her the full close-up treatment. Yet he then undercuts her by having the scene continue with another story -- one not nearly so compelling or as well-constructed -- that almost zeroes out the scene's impact. It's as if he left all the chaff mixed in with the wheat. If Winslet had been allowed to live up to her performance's highest points throughout -- which is mostly to say, if the film had been better -- I think this might have been viewed as one of her greatest efforts, an award-worthy tour de force. Instead, it's a worthy effort undone by directorial missteps and a mediocre surrounding effort.