Wonder Wheel is an interesting film. It’s the latest from Woody Allen, who’s a conversation in and of himself, and stars Kate Winslet (Titanic, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Justin Timberlake (In Time, Friends With Benefits), Jim Belushi (According to Jim, Red Heat) and Juno Temple (Afternoon Delight, Atonement). It’s okay. Gorgeous to look at, and not terrible, but definitely not worth running out to go see, unless Woody Allen is really, really your thing.
Woody Allen films are somewhat abundant, regardless of their actual quality. For every Blue Jasmine (2013), Midnight in Paris (2011) or Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, there’s twice as many rotten Irrational Man (2015), Magic in the Moonlight (2014), To Rome With Love (2012), You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010), Whatever Works (2009), Cassandra’s Dream (2007), I mean, I could go on… but I think the point is made. Woody Allen is everywhere, has worked with everyone, and generally releases a film written and directed by himself every year since – and this is no lie – 1981. When your batting average is little better than 1 in 5, maybe take a break? Take some time off, evaluate where you’re at, stop and take the time to readjust, do other things, whatever it takes. Just relax for a bit, Woody. It’ll do you good.
That said, despite critics rather harsh hammer coming down vehemently on Wonder Wheel, I don’t think it’s that bad. It’s problematic, sure, and there’s issues that really could have been ironed out, but it wasn’t a waste of my time in the cinema. I guess had I paid money for it I might have been a bit disappointed, but it wasn’t atrocious. Wonder Wheel is a 1950’s drama following the failed actress Ginny (Winslet), who now works at a clam house on Coney Island, her husband Humpty (Belushi) who operates the carousel, a lifeguard/aspiring playwright Mickey (Timberlake) and Humpty’s daughter from his first marriage (Temple) coming into their lives unannounced. Ginny and Mickey are having an affair, and things get going from there.
Where Wonder Wheel shines is in two very specific areas. Firstly, the cinematography and use of colour is outstanding. This is thanks to Vittorio Storaro, three time Oscar Winning director of photography for Apocalypse Now (1979), Reds (1981) and The Last Emperor (1987). Vittorio works to create a dream-like quality to Wonder Wheel, highlighting the Wonder Wheel on Coney Island, the island itself, the beautiful colours and accents and highlights and this all really works to create a dream-like quality to the film, almost surreal. I say almost, because you can feel Allen heading in that direction with his dialogue, and specifically with the narration from Timberlake’s character, but it never quite reaches that surrealist level, and just leaves the film falling short with mediocre dialogue that’s not believable. The second redeeming quality of Wonder Wheel is Kate Winslet. She plays a highly unlikeable character in Ginny, and boy does she commit to the role. The only problem is, the rest of the characters around Winslet never seem to work, their motivations don’t make sense, why they put up with her or each other doesn’t seem to make sense, and it all falls apart from there.
When you’ve got a narrator who’s a character that wants to be a writer who looks down the barrel of the camera and says, “I’m a writer, so I like romance and poetry” you’re hitting the nail on the head. You lean into that, hard, and if you don’t it’s not going to work. When you’ve got a character called “Humpty” and his round and wears egg-shell coloured clothing, and their life is literally crumbling around them, you make it a dark comedy, otherwise it’s not going to work. Wonder Wheel is so blatantly trying to be wink at its audience, whilst at the same time trying to ground itself in a working-class, hard-earned reality, that neither avenue ever really comes to fruition. As a result, the emotional weight of the film isn’t earned, scenes don’t feel genuine, character moments aren’t sincere and dialogue just isn’t how people talk.
Overall, Wonder Wheel is mediocre. It’s not awful, but it’s certainly not Woody Allen’s best. It feels much more like a poor man’s Blue Jasmine than any film in its own right. If you’ve got nothing better to do, sure. Why not. But only if this sort of thing is right up your alley, because frankly, there’s so many great Oscar contenders coming out soon (so many great films just with the name “Wonder” in the title coming out!) that I’d really recommend you spend your money and time elsewhere.
Wonder Wheel hits Australian cinemas on December 7, 2017.
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