Wonder Wheel Review
Wonder Wheel (2017) Film Review from the 55th Annual New York Film Festival, a movie directed by Woody Allen, starring Kate Winslet, Juno Temple, Justin Timberlake, Debi Mazar, Jim Belushi, Max Casella, Geneva Carr, Tony Sirico, Steve Schirripa, and Candice A. Buenrostro.
When it comes to Woody Allen, it can feel like a crapshoot – with the quantity of output and the staggering gulf between brilliance and utter mediocrity, a hesitance to give a new Woody Allen film a chance is more than understandable. With Wonder Wheel (2017), Allen has more of a winning hand than total bust. Wonder Wheel is better than most of his films, but certainly not among the titanic successes of Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), or Midnight in Paris (2011). However – it’s a thoroughly enjoyable stage play, of sorts, spent in the world of Coney Island in the 1950s. The theatrical bent to production design is most definitely intentional, as the narrative device here is rooted squarely in a character’s naive desire to craft a ponderous, intriguing, character-based theater production. Whether Mickey (Justin Timberlake) uses that personality trait as a lure for women isn’t clear, which may be a flaw in Timberlake’s performance, or unimportant to the story – we can’t tell.
Ginny (Kate Winslet) is a big bursting ball of stress and anxieties. Her son is constantly skipping school when he isn’t setting things on fire, and her husband, Humpty (Jim Belushi), a large alcoholic Brooklynite who screams more than he notices his wife’s unhappiness. See, Ginny used to have big dreams of being an actress, all shattered once she began beating herself down due to an act of infidelity in her previous marriage. She brings it up again and again, annoying even her young son, and seems to have trapped herself in a cycle of despair and seemingly deserved misery. She wants a better life, to start over again, to get out of this marriage and feel some optimism and a reaffirmation of life, once more. It makes perfect sense, then, for her to agree to an affair with Mickey – the local lifeguard. After all, what better way to keep the cycle of punishment-joy-punishment-joy going than to repeat the same mistake she made last time around?
Mickey is far younger than Ginny, and would probably have more in common with Ginny’s step-daughter Carolina (Juno Temple), if only he’d met her first. The love triangle here is cause for both intrigue as to what each party knows, and comedy regarding the audience’s omniscience. In the middle of all this, is a couple of gangsters looking for Carolina, as she knows all of her ex-husband’s mob-related secrets. So while there’s tension at home – with Ginny, Carolina, Humpty and the pyromaniac son – there’s an external threat looming throughout the narrative. This all works well, but, frankly, there isn’t all too much to sink your teeth in besides Winslet’s always reliable acting and the cinematography. Though often a bit intrusive and perhaps illuminating certain points too obviously, Vittorio Stotaro’s use of light and lenses really adds to the experience. From the incredible opening shot, depicting a perfectly classical photographic throwback of the Coney Island of yore, to the bleak, blue, deadly cold lighting in the end – Stotaro helps Allen out tremendously in constructing this partly stage and partly digital aesthetic. At some points, the exteriors look a little too digital for my liking, reminding of the uncanny valley of The Great Gatsby’s (2013) ashes.
The weakest link is most certainly Timberlake – but it may be Allen’s fault for not directing his actors well enough. We all know what Allen is like as a director, and his complete entrustment of quality regarding his cast is only as smart as his actors are. Winslet, Belushi – these are people you can count on. Timberlake, it seems, needed a bit more weight and presence. It’s often unclear whether his character is delusional or just the result of an underdeveloped performance. Regarding delusional – Winslet brings a breadth of appeal to this film. Her continuous, exponential teetering between manageable stress and intolerable mania is far too interesting to dismiss – but unfortunately, it isn’t part of a better film. Her character, and her personality traits, are strongly reminiscent of a better Allen film – Blue Jasmine (2013), and it’s a shame that the themes of this film don’t quite reach its earlier counterpart.
Still, Wonder Wheel is good fun, with enough in it to warrant a look. It feels really transportive to be part of a Coney Island long gone, and I’ve always enjoyed these theatrical depictions of life in America during harsh times. 1950s Coney Island lends itself beautifully to an Italian American family bickering over money and gender-traits over a Spaghetti and meatball dinner. Of course, the somewhat self-aware gangster plot just adds to this, causing for some almost cartoon-like entertainment. But here’s the other, perhaps most important issue for Wonder Wheel – is Ginny’s storyline meant to destroy me, and cause for an inevitable pondering of how terrible and depressing her life and decisions are? Or do I take it as lightly and as colorful as half of the movie is seemingly telling me to? This tonal balance was much clearer in Blue Jasmine, and the film benefitted from that clarity. Wonder Wheel often feels confused, but never enough to drag the film as a whole down. This is a Woody Allen not quite atop the wonder wheel, but somewhere toward the middle.
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