On paper, Wonder Wheel seems to have all of the right credentials. It’s a dramatic film set in the 1950s so it’s bound to look great. It stars Kate Winslet and is directed by Woody Allen. It is also set at the Coney Island Amusement Park. But even with all of this stuff on offer, one would expect Wonder Wheel to be I dunno, more amusing.
You get the sense that Woody Allen is once again mining his personal life here. But the love triangle and resulting examination of passion, adultery and betrayal leaves a somewhat bad taste in the mouth. Allen does not place himself in this pic like he has with some of his previous ones. Instead, he gets the pretty boy but rather wooden actor, Justin Timberlake to play Mickey, an aspiring playwright and lifeguard who also narrates the story. Mickey states early on that he is not a reliable storyteller and that he is drawn to melodrama and larger-than-life characters. And in many ways, he’s right.
Winslet carries this film and puts in an excellent performance. She plays Ginny, a volatile former actress who is in a loveless, second marriage to a carousel repair worker named Humpty (Jim Belushi.) This schlub is also the stepfather to Ginny’s son (Jack Gore), a film buff and passionate pyromaniac. They live in a small place alongside the film’s namesake, the Coney Island ride named the Wonder Wheel.
This ride is symbolic of a lot of things. This film is about broken dreams and doomed hope so this is like a pinch of lightness amidst the darkness. It also shows how things in life can change like the seasons but that they also often stay exactly the same. So when Humpty’s estranged daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) asks her father if she can stay with his family in order to hide out from the mob- nothing really changes. Carolina just seems to provide a thorn in Ginny’s side.
Things could have been on the up for Ginny when she meets Mickey on the beach and the pair embark on an affair. When Mickey breaks down the fourth wall and tells the audience that he noticed how vulnerable Ginny looked on the beach, you can’t help but wince at this in the light of the current allegations in the film industry as well as Allen’s own, chequered past. The line is one of many doosies that are uttered here. Allen’s typical sharpness, comedy and wit is noticeably missing and more staid things like, “That’s a hot age” suffice as dialogue.
Wonder Wheel had a lot of promise but it falls short on numerous fronts. Perhaps it’s something that would have made a better play than a film because Allen is channelling his inner Tennessee Williams, after all. Or it could be that times have moved on and we need more than just a paint-by-numbers character study of a woman’s life unravelling. In Woody Allen’s latest film this drama may be a wheel, but it also needs to have a point.
Review Score: TWO STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Wonder Wheel is in cinemas now.