Film Review – Wonder Wheel
Woody Allen has become – very nearly without argument – the most prolific filmmaker of the last half century. Since the late 1960s, the writer/director has averaged a film a year. That is an insane pace. It’s a testament to his work ethic: some people spend years of their life making one film, Woody Allen can conjure one up in his sleep.
That comes with its pros and cons. While Allen’s output has given us some truly remarkable work (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, etc.), it’s that very same non-stop approach that has put a damper on many of his other pictures, especially the most recent ones. For every Midnight in Paris (2012) and Blue Jasmine (2013) we get, we also have to deal with twice as many that we would all be better off not remembering.
Wonder Wheel (2017) sits awkwardly in the middle of the two sides. In his latest, Allen not only gives us glimpses of what has made him such a memorable storyteller, but we also have to bear the shortcomings that has plagued him. It’s a plot that once again revisits one of his classic themes: personalities adrift in regret and lost ambitions, coming and going in romantic entanglements that we know won’t have a pretty end. There’s no problem with an artist revisiting a certain theme or story numerous times. In fact, seeing their different versions of the same idea allows us to see how they have grown (or not grown) as they age. Unfortunately, in this instance we sense that Allen had an interesting premise in his head, but executed it without much to say.
We visit Coney Island sometime in the mid 20th century. With the boardwalk, the beach, the rides, the games, and the food, Coney Island represents an escape for many of the visitors that come. It’s an ironic location, given that our main characters feel trapped within this place. Ginny (Kate Winslet), is a waitress who works and lives on the boardwalk. She’s married to the brutish Humpty (Jim Belushi) who says he loves her only because he’s terrified of losing her. They both have children from previous marriages, her young son Richie (Jack Gore) is obsessed with setting fires, and Humpty’s daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) is a young woman who has returned home after escaping a sticky situation with some mobsters.
They all live in a cramped apartment right next to the ferris wheel. It’s a sad thing that all these characters, living on the fringe of society just a breath away from poverty, would have to look out the window and see a world of laughter and joy experienced by other people. This hits Ginny particularly hard. Instead of living out her dream of being an actress and traveling the world, she has to deal with a husband who appreciates her step daughter more than her, and a son who can’t help torching everything in sight. This causes Ginny to reach out to anyone or anything as form of relief. And it’s here where we’re introduced to Mickey (Justin Timberlake). Mickey works as a lifeguard on Coney Island, and through him Ginny sees everything she wanted: he’s traveled the world, he’s passionate about the arts, and he’s studying to be a writer. All of this draws Ginny to Mickey, but of course, that makes things a lot more complicated.
If Wonder Wheel has anything going for it, it’s from the production values. The set design and costumes evoke the era with lush colors. Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography captures environments with bright, sparkling lights. Nearly every scene seems to be shot during the “golden hour” of the day, as though the light were coming in sideways. Kate Winslet’s red hair is backlit so strongly that it often looks like it’s aflame. As the ferris wheel turns and the natural light gives way to the lights of the boardwalk, Ginny’s apartment shifts colors and shadows constantly. At the very least, the visuals are something to sit back and marvel at.
It’s fortunate that the look is so well done, because the writing does not come anywhere near the same quality. Shocking, really, since Woody Allen is renowned for his writing, even winning multiple Academy Awards for it. This is one of his poorest writing efforts in recent memory, as each piece of dialogue comes off as half baked, stagey, and pedantic. Mickey’s interest in Tennessee Williams is way too obvious a metaphor for the plot itself. Some of the lines the characters say are so stilted and unnatural it’s a miracle the actors were able to say them without cringing. For example:
“You have a kind face.”
“You have a beautiful face, especially in the rain light.”
What kind of human being can speak these words with sincerity?
As much as I admire Justin Timberlake as an entertainer, he is severely miscast here. Not at one point is he believable as an aspiring writer. Even worse, Allen makes him our narrator, guiding us through the story. As much charisma and screen presence as Timberlake has, he is not on the same level as the other participants, acting wise. The gap shows when Timberlake tries to keep up during dramatic scenes, the emotionality is not there. And what exactly is that accent he is trying to pick up? Is it a Brooklyn one? I’m sure Justin Timberlake will be in many more movies where his performances will be fine, maybe even great. But I doubt this particular role will be on his highlight reel.
But where he lacks, Kate Winslet excels. My god, what an effort she puts in. Winslet comes bursting through the doors as Ginny, acting as though her very well being depended on it. As Ginny’s life begins to spiral out of control, Winslet’s performance becomes more frantic, paranoid, and unhinged. It’s as though she is walking on a tightrope that is slowly being lifted higher and higher into the air. She uses every tool she has – her face, her voice, her body, her hair, her make up, her clothing – to portray a character that is slowly becoming delusional. Although I don’t think she’s going to get the critical praise she deserves, Kate Winslet reminds us why she’s one of the best in the business.
Look, I’m not going to tell you that Wonder Wheel is a great movie. I’m sure many people will brush it off as useless fluff. But there are things to admire: namely the cinematography and Winslet’s go-for-broke acting. It’s not terrible, it’s just not all that unique or refreshing from his past work. Everything we get here Allen has done before, and better. At this point in his career, Woody Allen gives us a great film only once every few years or so. I think he’s due for one at any point now.