‘Wonder Wheel’ or: When Autopilot Woody Allen Goes on Autopilot

wonder wheel

When Woody Allen makes a movie these days, it’s akin to watching a dart in midair as it readies to hit the board. When he makes a hit, it hits (‘Midnight in Paris, ‘Blue Jasmine, ‘Café Society’, even older hits such as ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors); when the project flops, oh boy, does it flop (‘You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and ‘To Rome with Love [you know, the one Ellen Page said she regretted working on. She was right, just not for the reasons she believes]); and sometimes, there’s a middle ground where the movie can fall into either group (‘Magic in the Moonlight and ‘Irrational Man). ‘Wonder Wheel marks three milestones for Mr. Allen: his forty-eighth major motion picture as he turns, a reunion with iconic Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro after their previously acclaimed collaboration and directing Kate Winslet, certainly one of the most iconic actresses of today, in what was sure to be one of her career defining performances and a working relationship between legends. So where the hell did it all go belly up?!

Set in one of Mr. Allen’s favorite periods, 1950s Coney Island as only he can visualize, romanticize and dramatize it, the ‘Wonder Wheel‘ of the title refers to the legendary Ferris wheel on the boardwalk in the midst of a summer sure to become sweltering, but not by the weather. Operator Humpty (Jim Belushi) is, as most of the husbands Mr. Allen depicts in this period are, a surly lout with not much else going on. Current wife Ginny (Ms. Winslet) is a rapidly maturing waitress with delusions… dreams of leaving the Mildred Pierce days behind (again) and returning to the stage as a real actress (proclaiming late in the story one of her claims to fame was appearing as “one of the whores” in a summer stock production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, one of the film’s genuinely funny lines), all the while dealing with her pyromaniac child Richie (Jack Gore, looking ready to nail an audition as Chucky) from the first husband whose ghost figuratively haunts every aspect of her disappointments and failures; that is, when she isn’t throwing herself into a torrid summer affair with intellectual lifeguard Mickey (Justin Timberlake). All their lives, save for Richie who’s just happy setting everything ablaze, are inevitably thrown into chaos by the arrival of “marked woman” Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty’s estranged daughter, on the lam from a hotheaded gangster husband and needing a place to lay low until she figures out what to do next. That alone makes for an interesting premise and one that Mr. Allen should have been able to knock out of the park blindfolded and bound by the legs. But he somehow just couldn’t.

wonder wheel

Image via Amazon Studios

Mr. Allen has reached that inevitable point in his career where he could walk off into the sunset if he wanted to, having crafted one of the most unique and extensive catalogues a director in American film has, but there’s certainly quite a few great stories growing in his head ready for the sun. ‘Wonder Wheel‘ fails that potential, opting instead to fall back on many familiar tropes; the sadder part is, they’re the tropes he has already redone many times before and with stronger conviction. Add to that many scenes in the film staged like soliloquies and monologues found in the authors and playwrights Mickey idolizes, one wonders if ‘Wonder Wheel‘, with a quality that’s overly theatrical even for Mr. Allen, might have worked better on stage. The overwhelmingly melodramatic nature of these characters would flow naturally rather than playing to the back of the multiplex’s audience who can perfectly hear what’s being screamed thanks to the wonders of digital surround sound. And there’s also the plot point of Mickey romancing both Ginny and Carolina, which commandeers the second half of the film and also something many fans and protestors of Mr. Allen will note as… familiar sounding.

And then there’s Kate Winslet herself. Even with the tepidness of the film amplified by its stale writing, much like other aspects of the film, this should have been a slam dunk performance from her. But the problem starts with Ginny herself. Eyes are certainly glued to the screen whenever Ms. Winslet is on screen, she certainly sells the hell out of Ginny and one ultimately understands her forlorn despair and obsession to be the person she (thinks she knows she) can be, but, unlike Cate Blanchett’s simultaneously sympathetic and despicable Jasmine, Ginny is an inconsistently written and acted lead and a dark hour for both creator and actor.

wonder wheel

Image via Amazon Studios

Mr. Timberlake is the latest of “hot” current generation actors to check their name in one of Mr. Allen’s films. And, surprisingly, he’s the one with arguably the better performance in the whole of ‘Wonder Wheel‘. Of course, he’s also the most obviously written one, but Mr. Timberlake brings a certain charm to Mickey that gives one the “courage” to wade through Mr. Allen’s obvious dialogue. It’s no wonder all the ladies that walk Coney Island fling themselves onto him. Mr. Belushi, much like Ms. Winslet, truly gives it his all and makes Humpty as watchable as Ginny, but much like the character of his wife, this is a performance that deserves a far stronger script; the same goes for Ms. Temple, who gets to look great in 1950s sun dresses and flaunt vulnerable sensuality like freshly applied perfume, but that’s about it.

On the more positive-ish side of things, it certainly won’t be faulted for being a good looking movie. Even when Mr. Allen’s final product (not just limited to ‘Wonder Wheel‘) is less than the sum of its parts, the parts are able to shine. Unlike their previous collaboration, Vittorio Storaro finds life in the lifeless; several key scenes make beautiful use of neon or sun-soaked colors, giving obvious character metaphors a beautiful and memorable appearance. Also top notch production and costume work from regulars Santo Loquasto and Suzy Benzinger do a wonderful job of bringing the 1950s to life. ‘Wonder Wheel‘ will not be held to the standard of the best, but it at least make the time worthwhile with the scenery its leads live in and interact with.

wonder wheel

Image via Amazon Studios

Mr. Allen, always on the move with a new project as the current one wraps, has already wrapped production on his forty-ninth film, ‘A Rainy Day in New York’, which is sure to see release by summer. One sincerely hopes that one has more in common with the hits than the misses, as ‘Wonder Wheel’ is a prime example of what disappointment from Woody Allen as a filmmaker feels like, all the more when considering its headliners and plot potential. What a terrible way to ring in his 82nd year.

wonder wheel

Image via Amazon Studios

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