Wonder Wheel is an unsalted stale cracker with a Vienna sausage on top. Sure, it’s edible if you are absolutely starving, but it is not a recommended meal. While it is far from Woody Allen’s worst film (that’s on you, I am not ranking here), it is still a boring dead zone of a picture with characters that are not fascinating enough to carry it. Worst yet, the film is very unsure of itself, combining a comedic and light fourth-wall shattering narrator who is also a character in the film, with drama that feels like actors yelling their material aloud rather than actual conveying any actual substance.
Raising a family on top of Coney Island during the ‘50s might sound like fun, but the bright and vibrant setting is a neon cloud that hovers over our main characters, drowning them in noise and fury. This would serve as a nice contrast if only the characters meant anything. Like the Ferris wheel the film is named after, Ginny saw the stars only to come back down to Earth once the ride ended, to once again walk amongst the normals.
Kate Winslet plays Ginny, a very frustrated housewife who is unhappily married to Humpty (James Belushi) an unrelatable husband. Two alcoholics that saved one another when they were both low and now they are stuck together, warts and all. Ginny also has a serial arsonist for a son, adding to her ever-increasing migraines. To make things even more complicated Carolina (Juno Temple) rolls into town, Humpty’s daughter from a previous marriage, fleeing from her mob-connected husband because she snitched to the FBI. Desperate to escape all of her family bullshit, Ginny goes for a long walk on the beach where she meets a young lifeguard Mickey, played by Thrustin Limbersnake—err, Justin Timberlake, the previously-mentioned narrator, and begins having a summer-long affair with this younger man.
One of these stories alone would have sufficed, and yes, life is millions of stories colliding at once, but this is a script that needed several cuts before shooting began. All the elements mentioned make for a bland stew that is ultimately not quite a full product. Ginny needs to escape from her life and wishes to find paradise in a younger man, this alone may have worked but coming from a disgraced-yet-still working-on-the-regular Woody Allen, it seems as if the other elements of drama were tacked on to remove focus from the real story. “I have to tell this story about an older person sleeping with a younger person but here is some padding to distract you from what I’m actually saying.” Why he had the audacity to get this off his chest is beyond me, bring the past drama into this film. It’s a mess. Separate the artist from the art, and it’s a poorly made film. No matter where you land with Allen’s films or personal life, Wonder Wheel is a bore with no lasting power, a vacuum of a film. It just makes you want to rewatch Blue Jasmine again once the credits roll.
Credit where credit is due, the cinematography by Vittorio Storaro is the real star of the show. The opening shot tells us immediately that the DP is not going to bungle this one, as he captures a beach teeming with New Yorkers on a bright and gorgeous Summer day, all clad in ‘50s bathing suits in perfect snapshot fashion. He plays with lighting throughout the film with great results. There are scenes of Kate Winslet talking about her past, back when it was lovely, and the lighting seems to give her a heavenly aura only to fade away after her rant is over because… life is a Ferris wheel, like I said before. Vittorio earned his check and I’d say hit mute and watch him dance if you are a DP hound once this hits Blu-ray.
Wonder Wheel is a weird movie that can’t seem to figure itself out. The humor is off, the drama is boring, and, man, do you ever feel that hour and 41-minute runtime. It feels too stagey to be a motion picture and probably would have caused walkouts in play form. Performances range from good to clunky, and this speaks to the erratic nature of the narrative. Cute one second, mean the next; it’s a dance partner with no rhythm who always steps on your feet. Sitting with these flat characters was a chore and I found myself relating to the child arsonist played perfectly (this whole thing ain’t your fault, kid) by Jack Gore. I just wanted to burn something, watch it reduce to ashes, then go see a movie by myself to escape my family. Even to die-hard Woody Allen fans, I cannot in good conscious recommend this film.
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