The wheel of dramatic tension keeps spinning rapidly for four different people caught in a tail spin on Coney Island in the 1950’s. ‘Wonder Wheel’ tells the story of four characters whose lives intertwine amid the hustle and bustle of the Coney Island amusement park in the 1950s: Ginny (Kate Winslet), an emotionally volatile former actress now working as a waitress in a clam house; Humpty (Jim Belushi), Ginny’s rough-hewn carousel operator husband with his own mob connections; Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a handsome young lifeguard who dreams of becoming a silver screen playwright; and Caroline (Juno Temple), Humpty’s long-estranged daughter, who is now hiding out from gangsters at her father’s apartment. The four cross-stories intercept and provide a wild and unpredictable Summer under the hot sun of the amusement park. ‘Wonder Wheel’ is written and directed by Woody Allen, and is rated PG-13 for thematic content including some sexuality, adult language and smoking.
I have never been the patriarch for the Woody Allen fan club. Many historian film lovers eat up every single one of the unlimited supply of filmography that cements his name amongst the Hollywood elite for the past five decades. However for me, Woody’s movies have always felt like a hilarious joke that only I wasn’t understanding the punchline to. A kind of pretentious entrepreneur behind the lens who was making only the kind of films that he wanted to, and never needed to change that aspect. ‘Wonder Wheel’ definitely isn’t going to remove that opinion anytime soon. This is a film that not only abides by the all style and no substance policy, but it practically re-defines it in ways that undercut any opportunity to instill some kind of dramatic pulse to what is unraveling. Allen feels content in letting a reputable A-list cast and remarkably beautiful setting fade with the sun that articulately adorns the amusement park day after day. I could try to argue that this is only because the aging Allen is no longer in the prime of his career, but any remote film buff will debate that he’s been saddled with this degree of laziness for years, and it’s something that hinders his positives as a director for just how mind-numbingly dull of a screenwriter that he truly is.
If Allen were in charge of a New York tourism video, he would’ve not only oversold his property, but he would also receive praise for his focus on some remote details that only an inhabitant would put together in his experience there. Allen again places much of his attention and emphasis on the environment itself that can quite often feel like the boiling pot of emotional response that turns the gears of these characters and their daily routines. Because of this, there should be no surprise when I say that my favorite detail of this film is in the vibrancy in color of the park that surrounds our cast of characters, as well as the way Woody instills that subtle nuance of a Broadway stage play in airing out the dirty laundry of the picture. There are several long takes during the film that offer some long-winded spins of dialogue to impress in our actors what they lack in emotional deposition, and the swerving in and around to keep the focus on only those who talk, distinctly gives off that stage vibe that plays out in real time.
The film’s color scheme also radiates its way into every scene, crafting an almost cartoon-like vibe of surrealism that highlights an outline of amazement. Allen is clearly in love with the 50’s post-war vibes of the big apple, and in the masterful Vittorio Storaro, whom Allen worked with last year in ‘Cafe Society’, he has found the perfect puppeteer in bringing the visions from his childhood to the silver screen. Storaro’s use of light in defense of the emotional versatility that is transpiring in every scene off of the faces of our characters, feels like it reaches for a bigger purpose in symbolism, but the preference is used to simply remind the audience of the very claustrophobic confinements that our protagonists find themselves in with their ever-growing problems. If I was basing this film on look alone, it would no doubt be one of my ten favorite films of 2017, but the designs of creativity aren’t enough to keep it from being weighed down by what underwhelms at nearly every turn.
Anyone watching the trailer can put together the idea that this film surrounds a love triangle that perplexes the movements of our characters, but what is unseen is just how undercooked and dull Allen keeps the temperature of this sizzle. Besides the fact that I couldn’t find myself relating to a single character because these are all remarkably terrible people, the film harvests zero care, concern, or urgency to what is being hinted at for the bigger picture. There are so many chances that ‘Wonder Wheel’ has in conjuring up some truly compelling suspense for what awaits in the future, but these people seem to be satisfied in their uninspiring lives and frankly unhealthy relationships that I couldn’t be bothered to feel pity or remorse for them for a single second. If this wasn’t enough, Allen kind of writes himself into a corner with the conflict of the film that offers two daggers for whatever path he chooses to take. One way is far too predictable to not see coming from ten miles away, and the second option (and the one the film takes) offers no resolution or impact to the building blocks of adversity that were stacking against the trio involved. The end conveyed the thought that this film should continue for a half hour more, even if that very idea felt most harmful to the man writing this very review.
As for performances, there was only one that was truly bad, but not a single one of the central three ever provide themselves a chance to standout. Winslet’s Ginny is definitely the best in my opinion for her unstable past that plays a prominent role in her decaying future. My problem with Winslet’s character is that she’s very detestable and only adds further emphasis to the long-debated idea that Allen doesn’t appreciate, nor does he know how to write a woman with power. Juno Temple is probably my favorite character in the film, but Temple’s deer-in-the-headlights routine robs us of the same kind of chance to fall in love with Caroline in the same manner that Timberlake does. Speaking of Timberlake, he definitely takes home the award for being the person who stands out for all of the wrong reasons. Timberlake’s New York accent is so inconsistent that it becomes kind of a challenge to map out which scenes were filmed on which days, and his usually endless charm disappears in the fog of convoluted dialogue that does him no favors in terms of personality. Timberlake doesn’t have chemistry with Winslet or Temple, so the convincing of trying to make me feel some kind of spark between them goes unfulfilled for 96 agonizing minutes.
THE VERDICT – ‘Wonder Wheel’ never gets its feet off the ground, choosing instead to parlay its audience through a mismanaging drama that lacks anything compelling in airing itself out. Without a single reputable performance to recommend, or a single instance of proof that Allen paid attention to the gorgeous scenery, AS WELL as the people who fill it, his latest romantic swooning spins off of the tracks early on, and never finds the inspiration to pick itself back up. The film settles for being an endless rotation of a self-loathing derivative that swallows your cylinders of pride one quarter at a time, and has you screaming in agony to get off.