Calling the results of Woody Allen’s annualized blueprint to filmmaking ‘wildly hit-or-miss’ is a colossal understatement. Each year the 82 year-old Allen pops out another quirky postmodern exercise in human reflection. When they stick their landing they can be nothing short of delightful. But when they don’t they can be tedious, uninspired and generally unpleasant to watch.
Unfortunately Allen’s latest film “Wonder Wheel” falls in the latter category. It’s set in 1950s Coney Island and puts us in with a mostly flawed and disagreeable lot of characters. The story’s centerpiece is Ginny (Kate Winslet), a clam shack waitress married to carousel operator Humpty (Jim Belushi) and with a pyromaniac son from a previous marriage. Their household is misery personified. The fragilely sober Humpty is occasionally sensitive but mostly loud and abusive. Ginny (one time an aspiring actress) hates her job, wants out of her marriage, and doesn’t mind sharing her unhappiness.
To make things even more unsavory, Ginny begins having an affair with a younger man named Mickey (Justin Timberlake). He’s a Coney Island lifeguard and wannabe dramatist who also happens to be the movie’s narrator. It’s hard to figure out how the the film wants us to feel about Mickey. You could say Allen treats him as his protagonist and in some ways he’s the one character who comes out of this mess unscathed. Could it reasonably be taken as an indictment on Allen’s perspective? Me, I thought Mickey was a slime.
The one small twinkle of light is in Juno Temple’s character Carolina. She is Humpty’s estranged daughter from his first marriage who shows up after being gone for five years. Turns out her family disowned her after she ran off with a known gangster. Now she is ‘marked’ by the mob after talking to the feds and she seeks help from her father. It’s an absurd angle but Carolina is a nice break from the constant toxicity we get elsewhere. She’s actually sensible, pleasant and ambitious.
You can’t help but notice Allen once again drawing from Tennessee Williams, but at times I saw it as cheaply ripping from Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”. It’s in Allen’s dialogue and in how he squeezes some of his characters. Take Belushi who has some impressive moments, but his dial is almost always cranked up to 10. Same for Winslet who gives it her all, but is rarely given any softer moments. As her character steadily unravels she’s hardly given room to breathe. It’s a suffocating task for a really good actress.
I have no problems with movies that focus on deeply flawed people or that put us in the company of an unlikable cast of characters. In fact I enjoy those explorations. “Wonder Wheel” has its moments where you begin to see what makes its characters tick. The problem is it doesn’t have an ounce of temperance. And despite its teases of intrigue and some good images from new Allen collaborator Vittorio Storaro, the movie never keeps its footing and becomes little more than an aimless endurance test. But there’s always next year, right? Or is there?
VERDICT – 2 STARS