Wonder Wheel (2017)
Brooklyn’s Coney Island represents unbridled fun but is also a metaphor for the fickleness of the American Dream. The promise of happiness calls out from behind facades of colour and bright lights but offers too brief respite from the harsh realities of life. Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel (2017) uses this tension between appearances and reality in almost every scene.
Set in the 1950s, a messy plot is overlaid with a nostalgic recreation of the noisy atmosphere of Brooklyn’s fun fair that is run by social fringe-dwellers with spent dreams. Short-tempered Humpty (Jim Belushi) barely makes a living running the carousel wheel and lives with wife Ginny (Kate Winslett) in a cramped first floor apartment that was once a freak show gallery. The spectacle and noise of the carnival is a constant backdrop to the claustrophobic space that feels like a cage for prowling primates. Humpty struggles to stay off the booze while Ginny is a tormented soul in her loveless marriage. She lives out the memories of her abandoned acting career through a melodramatic affair with lifeguard Mickey (Justin Timberlake), the wannabe scriptwriter and know-all narrator who is always telling us how to interpret the story. Humpty’s estranged 25-year old daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) arrives, fleeing from the mob after talking to the FBI and needs a place to hide. She falls for Mickey and Ginny falls apart, but not before she stumbles onto a callous but perfectly undetectable scheme for murder.
Wonder Wheel has all the hallmarks of classic early American theatrical melodrama: the apartment set is designed around semi-enclosed stage rooms and the acting style is hyper-dramatized. It is heavy with dialogue and prolonged monologues that feel as if the film is trying hard to tell rather than show. Humpty’s temper tantrums are repetitive, Mickey’s pretentious narration is irritatingly self-indulgent and Ginny’s self-conscious and over-cooked ramblings become wearying. Like her budding pyromaniac son from her first marriage, she tries to crash and burn the things she hates in life without giving the audience a reason to care. She is desperate to play one of the oldest roles in theatre: the older woman who thwarts her rival for romance, runs away with the younger man, and is set free from her mid-life identity chains. But after the fun of Coney Island, reality must return and the wheel of life keeps spinning.
If you are a fan of theatre the performances might please but as cinema it feels forced. The script, dialogue, and characters are unconvincing, although the filming and period sets are excellent. While Kate Winslet’s performance is over-stylised it is memorable for its intensity. In the Weinstein/Trump climate, Woody Allen’s work is being shunned by many, but that is not why Wonder Wheel is struggling critically. Simply put, it is far from his best work.
Director: Woody Allen
Stars: Jim Belushi, Kate Winslet, Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple