Movie review: Wonder Wheel
Woody Allen’s direction is just plain wooden as he hands the dramatic tray to Kate Winslet, forcing her to serve up a bland meatloaf formed from F. Scott Fitzgerald scraps and Tennessee Williams’s vulnerable female gristle
Starring: Kate Winslet, Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple, Jim Belushi
Directed by: Woody Allen
Running time: 1 hr 41 mins
By Katherine Monk
Woody is starting to live up to his name. No. Not in that way. Woody Allen has already gone through the sex scandal spin cycle that, thanks to his estranged and perhaps not biological son, Ronan Farrow, is now consuming Hollywood’s well-tailored elite.
No. This time around, Woody is just wooden. Like the dated Coney Island structure that gives the drama its name, Wonder Wheel is a circular entertainment that goes up, down, and all around in a predictable — and sometimes nauseating — fashion.
Like so many of Allen’s latter-day pieces, it feels like a dotty redo of Tennessee Williams’s signature work or a nostalgic, aspirational nod to Eugene O’Neill and F. Scott Fitzgerald. We watch a desperate, emotionally parasitic woman seek redemption through a sympathetic male host.
Kate Winslet is Ginny: The Unhappy Woman. A former beauty now entering her 40s as a divorced mother, Ginny feels she is little more than the sum of her many compromises. She wanted to be an actress, but got lost in a romance that ultimately fell apart. To save herself and her son, she married Humpty (Jim Belushi), an older man grieving the death of his wife and his daughter’s elopement to a mobster.
Humpty, Ginny and her pyromaniac son live together in a small apartment in the park itself, a small aerie of unpainted clapboard that overlooks that looming, symbolic Wonder Wheel — forever turning in the background.
Shot by Vittorio Storaro, perhaps the best cinematographer in the world today, every single frame of Wonder Wheel is a little wonder in itself. The images capture more than the look and fashion of the 1950s, they are framed with a Normal Rockwell sensibility for human interaction and body position, as well as lighting and colour.
The cinematography, more than the story, pulls us in. Yet, once we’re there, sitting next to our narrator Mickey (Justin Timberlake) in the lifeguard chair, Allen finds a way to seduce us and take us on his new ride.
Mickey is your classic catalyst of a character: handsome and active, he works at the beach and watches people. When his eyes fall on Ginny, he’s tickled by her inner pain and wants to suck on her story. She happily obliges, and soon builds an entire ever-after in her own mind.
The only snag is Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty’s daughter who reappears after snitching to the feds on her mobster hubby. Carolina is young, sexy and in danger. Could there be anything more appealing to a young man like Mickey, whose very job description involves saving people on the beach?
You don’t need an adding machine to figure out where the emotional balance sheet won’t reconcile. What Wonder Wheel did need is an auditor to ensure the feelings weren’t overspent. Woody Allen doesn’t even seem to try. As a director, he lets his company run into the red when it comes to expending sentiment.
The good news is there’s nothing like watching Kate Winslet on an acting spree. The timelessly negotiable talent sinks her mitts into the soft hips of Ginny’s character and goes dancing. Like, ‘til dawn.
There’s no doubt this is her show — if only by default: No one else transforms. Certainly not on the perpetually thudding page. Yet, Winslet is such a pro she prods and pushes every one of her cast-mates into some authentic twitch of change.
Whether it’s giving Justin Timberlake a playful tug into pity, or offering Jim Belushi the ghost of intimacy, Winslet transforms Allen’s mid-century caricature into something throbbing. And broken. Maybe even a little embarassing. It’s the heart of the American Dream, disillusioned, living in a dilapidated house in the middle of an aging amusement park.
Perhaps, given its ambition, it could have been another Blue Jasmine: a chromatically perfect and wonderfully timely reiteration of Blanche DuBois and Scarlett O’Hara. Woody Allen stitched the “red,” “white” and “blue” American archetypes together, and Cate Blanchett met the high bar of performance to complete the metaphorical flag of collective female identity and suffering.
Wonder Wheel is a Long Day’s Journey On a Short Pier. Or a two-part episode of The Honeymooners meets I Love Lucy.
Despite Winslet’s brilliance and everyone else’s very best efforts, Wonder Wheel lurches from scene to scene, frequently swinging wildly in all directions as characters pull whiskey bottles from secret places and sometimes set things on fire.
At its worst, it’s like a bad production of something Arthur Miller threw out as a teenager. At its best, it’s an awkward slog through the sand on a pretty beach, surrounded by pretty people. Timberlake makes use of every available twinkle in those sweet blue eyes. Temple proves she’s capable of matching Winslet’s subtle beats. Even Jim Belushi manages to fight through his Jackie Gleason reflex when Winslet is there to absorb Allen’s theatrical blow.
Wonder Wheel may not go anywhere new, offer any truly original content, or advance any particular cause. Yet, it sparkles in its own absurd way. It’s trying to give you something real, even though it’s aware of its own undeniably artificial, and sincerely campy, mechanics.
THE EX-PRESS, December 8, 2017