I know, I know. Given the current climate in Hollywood and across the film industry in general over the past year, the decision to watch a Woody Allen film in 2018 feels like the furthest thing from a good idea. Welcome to the post Oscars cinematic calendar landscape, a strange and confusing time of the year that sees the releases of a slate of films that fit neither the category of summer blockbuster or serious awards contender. Against my better moral judgement, and thanks in large part to my love of Kate Winslet, I decided to go ahead and see Wonder Wheel.
And here I am, back from my field trip, to reaffirm my belief that Woody Allen has become a true master of pumping out bang average, very mildly enjoyable motion pictures that have the exact same effect on a human being as eating a stale donut. You go for it because you remember what a good donut used to taste like, there is a brief air of pleasure mixed with a larger air of guilt, and then ultimately you finish your last crumb and proceed to forget that you ever ate the stale donut in the first place.
Set amidst the sumptuous and visually arresting wonder of 1950s Coney Island, Wonder Wheel tells the story of Ginny Rannell (Kate Winslet), a former actress and current waitress who, in an act of rebellion against her unhappy marriage to Humpty (Jim Belushi), embarks on an affair with a younger man, aspiring writer and summer lifeguard Mickey Rubin (Justin Timberlake). When Humpty’s adult daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) reappears, on the run from her mobster husband, tensions flare and lives are ruined, both by Mickey’s instant attraction to his lover’s younger step-daughter, and by the Mafia connections that she brings with her to Coney Island.
I’ll start with the positives. Wonder Wheel looks absolutely amazing. Cinematographer Vittorio Stararo has done a stunning job in bringing out the nostalgic best in a quirky, whimsical Coney Island setting. The thing is lit so beautifully that it is a pleasure to set ones eyes on for the ninety or so minutes. Unfortunately, that is where my praise for the film mostly ends. Besides the reversed theme of an older woman romancing a younger man, the narrative highlights of Wonder Wheel are well within the usual Allen pantheon, the problem being that the dialogue is some of his most uninspiring and, frankly, boring to date. Despite the cinematography’s best efforts to convince us otherwise, everything about the picture feels decidedly like a play, from the overly long, self indulgent monologues to the missed opportunities with the Coney Island set at its disposal. Allen used to have a unique talent for taking the everyday and making it special, but in Wonder Wheel, even with a visually exciting backdrop and nostalgic time period, the story feels pedestrian at best, not to mention predictable.
Style over substance is certainly the phrase of the day here. Eight out of every ten frames of the film would make beautiful wall art, but beneath the fantastic cinematography there really isn’t much else there. The difference between an effort like this and iconic offerings like Annie Hall and Hannah And Her Sisters is night and day, and when the audience are being presented with so many of the same themes, why on earth would you choose to watch this rather than one of the creator’s best?
As Ginny Rannell, Kate Winslet does her best with a severely underwhelming script, tasked with playing a mostly unlikeable protagonist who encapsulates all of the worst traits of an ‘ageing starlet filled with insecurities and misplaced resentment’ stereotype. Remember how enjoyable it was to watch Cate Blanchett unravel in Blue Jasmine? Well, Winslet is trying the same sort of thing but with much weaker source material, and it shows.
As the clear Woody Allen substitute in a long line of cinematic Woody Allen substitutes, Justin Timberlake is certainly committed in the role of Mickey Rubin, but it does feel very much like he is somewhat out of his depth. He fits the heartthrob bill perfectly, the lighting having a particularly striking effect on his baby blues, but when it comes to the slightly more intellectual and dramatic sides of the role, Timberlake falls a little short in my opinion.
It is actually Juno Temple as daughter Carolina who comes out of the messy film with the most plaudits. She brings a sincerity to her character that feels lacking in others, to the extent that it is kind of shame that she isn’t the protagonist of the picture. The film would have benefited from more focus on Temple’s arc than Winslet’s.
Overall, Wonder Wheel is pretty much a hot damn mess. Bearable in real time thanks to the particularly pleasing cinematography, but completely forgettable in nearly all other aspects. It feels very much like a poor imitation of a Woody Allen film rather than an actual Woody Allen film, testament perhaps to the increasingly clear fact that the filmmaker’s best creative days are behind him. Don’t let the star power of names like Kate Winslet fool you, you won’t miss a thing by skipping this one altogether.