In a lot of ways, Wonder Wheel plays out like a standard contemporary Woody Allen piece. There’s the snappy dialogue, breezy music accompaniment and strong ensemble. This isn’t a groundbreaking picture, but it’s worth seeking out for Kate Winslet’s undeniable performance and the beautiful cinematography.
The film is set in 1950s Coney Island where the carnival games, attractions and beaches keep bringing in crowds. It also provides a reason for Wonder Wheel’s lack of diversity, but it’s still disappointing.
Winslet (Triple 9) stars as Ginny, a Coney Island waitress stuck in a loveless marriage to short-tempered carousel operator Humpty (Jim Belushi). Both brought children drama in to the marriage. Ginny’s son, Richie (Jack Gore), is a budding pyromaniac and Humpty’s daughter Carolina (Juno Temple, Black Mass) had a falling out with her gangster husband. Carolina’s given up too much information to the authorities and taking her in puts the family at risk, but Humpty would do anything for his baby girl.
Humpty’s neglect just makes it easier for Ginny to stop fighting the feeling with handsome lifeguard Mickey (Justin Timberlake) and start an affair. Despite being old enough to know better, Ginny starts entertaining the thought of Mickey whisking her away from the sorry state of her life. As the film progresses, we learn Ginny has fallen into a pattern that to some extent explains why her son is likely going to end up in prison.
Allen makes the questionable call to have Mickey serve as the occasional narrator and fourth-wall breaking character directly speaking to the audience. Timberlake is a steadily improving actor, but he struggles trying to play Allen’s avatar here. Predictably, all of Ginny’s grand plans get derailed the moment Mickey encounters Carolina. But considering his status as a lifeguard it seems inevitable that Mickey was going to try and better deal Ginny.
Allen, who wrote and directed the film, makes it hard to like any of the characters. Humpty is boorish and a neanderthal product of his time. Mickey has a used car salesman charm, while Ginny might be worse than both of them.
It’s a good thing Wonder Wheel’s success largely hinges on Winslet. While all of her actions aren’t the noblest, Winslet makes Ginny’s choices understandable. Ginny is still dealing with sins from the past and it’s clear she needs the weekly visits to the psychiatrist more than Richie.
Just like he did four years ago with Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, Allen sets up a terrific showcase for Winslet’s talents. After seeing Blue Jasmine, Blanchett was the obvious Best Actress winner. Winslet has a more crowded film this year and the general stickiness with Allen given the current Hollywood climate, her performance might get overlooked for safer nominee choices, but she’s just as worthy.
Temple is also really good. Caroline is the only genuinely good person in the film, which naturally means she gets screwed over the worst. Allen works hard to manufacture drama in the final act with at least one character making a completely unrealistic decision. There were easier ways for Allen to essentially reach the same point, but this was the most convoluted.
Bringing multiple Oscar winning choreographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, Reds) on board was a much better decision. Storaro creates a gorgeous backdrop for all the character chaos from the neon lights, a cloud covered beachfront and the colorful boardwalk. This is a beautiful film and there’s a subtle irony with such darkness in the characters clashing with the bombastic, colorful setting. Storaro seems like the other possible nomination option
At 101 minutes, Wonder Wheel doesn’t reach the point of overindulgence. The pacing is just right as the film peaks and winds down at the ideal moment. While there’s a general uneasiness with Allen at this stage in his career and the seeming inevitability of him landing in the scandal cross hairs, Wonder Wheel is a tremendous showcase for Winslet, who keeps finding new ways to get better.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10
Photo Credit: Jessica Miglio/Amazon Studios