Woody Allen (Café Society) doesn’t believe in mediocrity. In this late stage of his career, in his 82nd year, most of his work is either very good or very bad. Middle ground is frowned upon, and that is why Wonder Wheel, a period piece that is a pastiche of classical dramatic elements that Allen has done better before, falls towards the latter end of the scale.
In the 1950s, Carolina (Juno Temple, The Most Hated Woman in America) is on the run from the mob. She moves in with her estranged father, Humpty (Jim Belushi, TV’s Twin Peaks); his wife Ginny (Kate Winslet, The Mountain Between Us); and Ginny’s pyromaniacal son Richie (Jack Gore, Billions) on Coney Island. Their story is told by lifeguard Mickey (Justin Timberlake, Trolls), an aspiring dramatist who catches the eye of Ginny and Carolina both.
Timberlake’s Mickey, an intermittently applied and inherently disingenuous narrator — and one too lazy to wrap up the movie — name-checks Eugene O’Neill several times, so it’s not difficult to see where Allen drew his inspiration from. The problem is that Allen channelled Tennessee Williams in Blue Jasmine, and he did it better there. Wonder Wheel offers strong characterisation in Temple’s Carolina, but Winslet’s role is more demanding. Rather than complex, Ginny spends much of the movie ascending a rollercoaster collecting neuroses, and then accelerates to the bottom, off the rails, past the boardwalk and into the ocean. As Ginny’s life grows worse, she curiously becomes less and less sympathetic. Winslet is committed to the material, but the role is ultimately thankless. Her only comfort lies in the fact that Blanchett would not have been able to wrangle an Oscar out of this material.
On a technical level, Wonder Wheel takes elements that work and then goes to the effort to ruin them slightly. Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography, used to such great effect in Café Society, is frequently beautiful; the play of light and colour on the faces of Temple and Winslet is hypnotic and speaks of depths in their characters that Allen’s script is scarcely able to tease out his script. However, the obsession with treating Ginny’s apartment as the sort of set that a Blanche Dubois or James Tyrone would have a breakdown in means that the camera roams when it should stay still, and there’s a bizarre shot early on where Belushi, in the foreground, has Winslet awkwardly blocked behind his shoulder in the background. This reads not as intentional cinematic storytelling, but just a weird setup that doesn’t read on screen.
Further to this, the soundtrack offers only three or four songs. On endless repeat. If you do see Wonder Wheel, you will become intimately familiar with the song “Coney Island Washboard”. You will not thank Allen for this intrusion on your neural real estate, but it’s emblematic of the overall impact of the film.
Wonder Wheel has a fundamentally solid concept and theme, but Allen’s approach to heaping on miseries and neuroses becomes exhausting, and the film collapses under its own weight. Quality performances are overwhelmed by an overwritten script, and otherwise impressively shot and lit scenes are wrecked by careless camerawork. Allen’s current track record isn’t quite that every second film is watchable (he made two in a row a few years back), but Wonder Wheel is definitely not one of his works that will be kept for posterity.
Wonder Wheel opened in Australian cinemas on December 7, 2017.
Directed by: Woody Allen.
Starring: Kate Winslet, Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple, Jack Gore and Jim Belushi.