Film Review: Wonder Wheel

by Carrie Kahn on December 8, 2017

Allen’s newest far from Wonder-ful   

Lifeguard and wanna-be writer Mickey (Justin Timberlake) has an affair with the unhappily married Ginny (Kate Winslet).

Let’s first address the elephant in the room. Yes, Wonder Wheel, writer/director Woody Allen’s newest, is about a man who finds himself falling in love with his girlfriend’s step-daughter. I suspect there are many filmgoers who have made up their minds about Allen, and so either won’t see this particular film because of its uncomfortable parallels to his real life, or because, in agreement with his daughter Dylan Farrow’s recent essay, they don’t want to support the work of an accused sexual predator. If you fall in one of those categories, you need read no further, but for those of you who still remain curious and open to Allen’s art, there is another, more pedestrian reason to avoid this picture: it’s just not very good.

Set in 1950s Coney Island, Allen’s latest borrows liberally from both his other films and, most glaringly, from Tennessee Williams. Clearly as Allen ages he is getting more nostalgic for his past; remember in Annie Hall when Allen’s Alvy flashes back to his upbringing under the roller coaster at Coney Island, where his father ran the bumper cars? In Wonder Wheel, young Richie (Jack Gore) a troubled red-headed boy (hmmm) lives with his mother Ginny (Kate Winslet) and step-father Humpty (Jim Belushi) adjacent to the Ferris wheel (the titular Wonder Wheel) at Coney Island, where his step-father runs the carousel. But whereas Annie Hall mined the situation for its comedic angst, here, instead, Allen succumbs to rather soapy melodrama, and the result is a sudsy, overly long (the hour and 40 minute run time feels interminable), and painfully mannered story.

Carolina (Juno Temple) comes to Coney Island to reconnect with her father.

The story focuses on two major events: Humpty’s daughter Carolina (Juno Temple), a gangster’s young wife who has left her husband comes to stay with her father and step-mother, and the deeply unhappy Ginny begins an affair with Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a much younger, handsome lifeguard with literary aspirations. When Mickey meets Carolina, however, he’s instantly taken with her, thus putting his relationship with Ginny, a boardwalk waitress and former actress, into jeopardy, and spiraling Ginny into a tailspin of envy. On top of that, Carolina’s ex-husband’s henchmen are after her, and young Richie, for some reason, is a budding pyromaniac in the making, two plot points that seem thrown into the mix solely to increase Ginny’s stress level and exacerbate her breakdown.

While the plot itself is mildly absorbing, Allen executes it so heavy-handedly that it loses any of its inherent interest, and just becomes tiresome. A major problem is that Allen’s dialog here feels stilted and unnatural, like something an amateur playwright would write in a first-year playwriting class. Examples: “I’m not a waitress in a clam house; there’s more to me than that!” shouts Ginny at one point; Carolina says about her marriage, “It was great until it wasn’t,” and Mickey tells Carolina, “I have book knowledge – but you’ve really tasted life.” And of course ex-Navy man, current European drama grad student, and aspiring writer Mickey, who also narrates the film (à la Tom in the Glass Menagerie; he even opens the picture just like Tom, by telling us he’s a character in the story as well), uses the phrase “tragic flaw” twice in the span of a several minutes. “My tragic flaw is I’m too romantic a character,” Mickey tells us in a voice over, in a severely obvious case of telling over showing. And when he first spies Ginny on the beach, Mickey muses, “She’s pretty – but somewhere there’s a tragic flaw.” Okay. Got it: tragic flaws are all the rage here.

Humpty (Jim Belushi) and his wife Ginny (Kate Winslet) argue about his daughter.

Winslet, though, is a consummate actress, and she at least can make some of these cliché pronouncements work; when she despairingly tells Mickey, “I’ve become consumed with jealousy,” you feel her pain, instead of merely thinking you’re hearing a high school student’s favorite line from the play he wrote at 1:00am the night before drama class. Timberlake, though, flails badly, and, aside from being terribly miscast as a romantic lead with literary ambitions (can anyone really picture Justin Timberlake reading Ernest Jones’s 1949 classic Hamlet and Oedipus, as Allen has Mickey do here?), Timberlake delivers each of Allen’s floridly intellectual lines as if he were reading them off cue cards; hearing him tell Carolina she looks beautiful in the “rain light” is especially cringeworthy.

Belushi acquits himself better in a somewhat thankless Stanley Kowalski role; Humpty, though hapless, does seem to love both his wife and daughter, and their conflict appropriately upsets him. But it’s Winslet, in the Blanche DuBois role (Allen apparently loved Cate Blanchett’s work in Blue Jasmine so much that he directs Winslet to a similar performance here), who is absolutely heartbreaking, and the picture’s one saving grace. Though the Blanche metaphor is laid on a tad too thick — from Ginny’s poetic description of her fist husband, whom she hurt badly (“a drummer – whose rhythms pulsated with life”) to her final, drunken scene, in which she literally puts on gaudy old costumes from a trunk and appears unable to accept a harsh reality as it unfolds around her — Winslet shows us she would make a fine Blanche on stage someday. It’s just too bad that her practice run had to be in this forgettable film. “Oh God – spare me the bad drama,” Ginny says to Mickey at one point. I’d like to say the same to Allen.


Wonder Wheel opens today at Bay Area theaters.












Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll. Proud new member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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