Wonder Wheel, 2017.
Written and Directed by Woody Allen.
Starring Kate Winslet, Juno Temple, Justin Timberlake, Jim Belushi, Max Casella, Jack Gore, and David Krumholtz.
On Coney Island in the 1950s, a lifeguard tells the story of a middle-aged carousel operator and his beleaguered wife.
Say what you will about Wonder Wheel (the latest yearly feature from longtime established writer and director Woody Allen), but it remains committed to tragedy and melodrama with a self-awareness so in-your-face (Justin Timberlake’s lifeguard Mickey is an aspiring writer studying famous Shakespeare works at college who breaks the fourth wall repeatedly talking to the camera about his enjoyment for such themes), it mitigates some of the 1950’s Coney Island-set relationship drama’s irritating aspects. Everyone from Jim Belushi to Kate Winslet appears to be delivering flashy performances designed to garner awards consideration in a not-so-subtle way, as nearly every scene from these two, in particular, are filled with over-the-top speech tones and flailing hand gestures.
Mickey also mentions during the opening that Coney Island has slowly begun to become a seedier destination, but one can’t help but feel he must be in his own beachside paradise as sensuality, wisdom, and broken marriages reveal their wear and tear, in turn, placing him in a complex love triangle. Ginny (Kate Winslet giving a terrific performance that almost makes me forget The Mountain Between Us exists) is unhappy as the wife to Humpty (Saturday Night Live alumni and Chicago’s own Jim Belushi), often neglected with references to physical abuse (although never depicted on-screen). Not even at surface level do they seem a fitting match, but there is a reason for her loyalty. It’s also worth noting that the declining reputation of Coney Island isn’t helping business at the carousel attraction Humpty operates.
The couple’s son (born from a previous husband) also happens to be a cartoonishly depicted pyromaniac, always lighting more and more dangerous fires as the movie progresses seemingly as a way of lashing out for how little he matters. Well, his disturbing impulses only grow worse as he’s further ignored when Humpty’s daughter Caroline (Juno Temple shining with grace and beauty) reconnects with him after a falling out of five years. In a nutshell, she made a mistake marrying into the Mafia at a young age and is now a marked woman, now willing to undertake college courses to become an English teacher.
Much like Wonder Wheel cuts right to the chase and does itself, now is the time to let the cat out of the bag that Mickey is having a fling with Ginny (they wisely make use of his free rainy days to see each other more than usual), and it’s something that complicates once he also becomes infatuated with Carolina for the, you guessed it, melodrama surrounding her life. He also happens to enjoy her intelligence and shared a common interest in literature, but he’s also a man of poetry so the drama is what really pulls him in. Naturally, Ginny catches wind of them conversing one day, and jealousy arises as she suspects Carolina will win his heart.
Ultimately, what makes Wonder Wheel work is Woody Allen’s ability to make viewers empathize with deeply flawed characters who don’t always do the right thing. The script also isn’t afraid to flip itself upside down, making once cruel characters drastically more likable. It’s a familiar story when it comes down to it, but the creative decision to go full on stageplay drama with its decent characters saves it from boredom. One could say it’s trashy fun, akin to a soap opera but with a top-notch writer and director, who may not be in his prime anymore, but here has made his best film since Blue Jasmine.
Additionally, the film also sees Woody Allen playing around with colorful lighting, sometimes going from gloomy shades of blue or orange and reverting back to a normal color palette all within the same scene. Wonder Wheel‘s visuals is a wheel itself, cycling colors to enhance every moody and heated dialogue exchange. Those tensions continue to rise and arguments bracingly become increasingly more irrational, as the picture wraps itself up with a rather sad ending. A certain decision by Ginny does feel slightly out of character, but to play devil’s advocate it does ramp up that melodrama advertised from the beginning seconds.
If you absolutely cannot handle overdramatic romance arcs and children starting fires every opportunity they get, Wonder Wheel might admittedly be an immediate turnoff. With that said, it’s pretty difficult to deny its aesthetical charm, whether it comes from artistic usages of lighting or the tourist Coney Island scenery of sandy beaches, Ferris wheels, old-timey pizzerias, and stunning boardwalk views. Kate Winslet also manages to transcend her showboating performance into multilayered, empathetically tragic, Oscar-worthy flair. If Woody Allen could consistently make movies like this in his older age, I wouldn’t mind watching one every year.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com