THE STORY – Four peoples’ lives intertwine amid the hustle and bustle of the Coney Island amusement park in the 1950s: Ginny, an emotionally volatile former actress now working as a waitress in a clam house; Humpty, Ginny’s rough-hewn carousel operator husband; Mickey, a handsome young lifeguard who dreams of becoming a playwright; and Carolina, Humpty’s long-estranged daughter, who is now hiding out from gangsters at her father’s apartment.
THE CAST – Kate Winslet, Jim Belushi, Juno Temple & Justin Timberlake
THE TEAM – Woody Allen (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 101 Minutes
By Matt N.
Here’s the thing with Woody Allen. At 81 years of age and dozens of films under his belt, you either love his work or you don’t. He has never dramatically changed his style of writing or characters. However, starting with “Cafe Society” and now “Wonder Wheel” he has made one change which has marked a dramatic improvement in his work and that is his collaboration with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. “Wonder Wheel” is Allen’s most technically dazzling film in years in terms of its production design and visual look. However, his characters and writing, remain as much of a mixed bag as ever, filled with the typical Allen-isms and self-indulgence we have come to expect from his work.
Taking place on Coney island during the 1950’s, Ginny (Kate Winslet) is an unhappily married waitress to her hot-headed husband Humpty (Jim Belushi). With a son from her first marriage that has a bad habit of committing arson, an affair with an intellectual younger lifeguard (Justin Timberlake) over the summer and the arrival of Humpty’s daughter (Juno Temple) who is running away from her mobster husband, Ginny starts to unravel as she thinks back on her series of life decisions while trying to deal with the ramifications of her new ones.
“Wonder Wheel” is a gorgeously colored and lush film with dreamlike lighting and framing by Storaro. It’s a key missing component to Allen’s work that has been missing for years. The lavish set design, especially within Ginny and Humpty’s apartment, is vast and allows for many of the scenes to be blocked and shot like a play. Eugene O’Neill and his work gets brought up by Timberlake’s character Mickey, as he fancies himself an intellectual and a romantic (Sound like an Allen character yet?), so it would make sense that Allen would structure his film though as if it were an O’Neill play. Mickey even tells Ginny at one point that in Eugene O’Neill’s plays, the protagonist gets crushed by a fatal weakness of their own. It’s very on the nose in terms of how the film is written but in its execution, Allen and Storaro succeed. The camera glides through the apartment following multiple characters, sometimes in long and unbroken shots, with dramatic shifts in lighting. When the carnival right outside of the apartment is active, the lighting switches from blue to red, sometimes as a means to reflect the character’s mental state and convey an emotion or mood. When the carnival is shut down, the apartment appears washed out and grey. These contrasts and technical decisions are what helps to elevate “Wonder Wheel” above the typical “walk and talk” of Allen’s films to something better.
Now here is where things get a bit murkier. As stated before, Allen’s writing can be very on the nose and the meta-comments from Mickey about a writer writing about the human condition and Ginny talking about her dreams of playing a role as an actress, are all quite good. “Wonder Wheel” works best when its a story of isolation, unrealized dreams, and despair. These are the moments which help to give Ginny characterization and allow Winslet to play the character in many different tones. Except, she doesn’t. Winslet goes a tad bit over the top at times and plays the character on one note which is complete hysteria. It’s a performance that can be compared to Cate Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine” however, Winslet can be too overbearing at times. You will find no subtlety here, which is exactly the point considering that Allen is writing, shooting and directing this like it is a play. Jim Belushi surprised me the most as the hot-headed, husband who is nothing but a pathetic drunk without his wife. Juno Temple is a welcome sight who plays her part suitably while Justin Timberlake receives the “Woody Allen character” and he is the weakest link of the cast. With voice-over narration, breaking the fourth wall and line readings that don’t sound authentic at all, Timberlake tries but cannot match up to the work around him.
“Wonder Wheel” is Allen’s attempt at writing a play for the screen, equipped with monologues about playing different roles in life, feeling trapped and dreams that will never come true because the characters are either unraveling or to broken to fix their spots in life. It’s occasionally a mixed bag, just like most Woody Allen films but with a higher degree of style, thanks to the beautiful cinematography, a plot which is surprisingly light on comedy and heavy on drama and performances that are constantly engaging despite their excessiveness.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – The gorgeous, colorful cinematography by Vittorio Storaro. The production design allows for the film to be shot, blocked and performed like a play. The performances by the cast are varied enough that there is something you to gravitate towards.
THE BAD – As evidenced by the comment on the performances, Allen remains a mixed bag in terms of his writing and characters. He’s an acquired taste that you either love or you hate and that doesn’t change here.
THE FINAL SCORE – 6/10