Film Review: Wonder Wheel

Middling Woody Allen film set in 1950s Coney Island about a waitress who is betrayed in love and commits an act with disastrous results. The setting is exquisitely recreated.
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Life is a three-act drama; people play characters; and personal fate is spawned by one’s tragic flaw coupled with the volatility of cosmic flukes. The existence of free will is up for grabs.

There it is: Woody Allen’s latest film Wonder Wheel, which also reiterates the moral complexities, metaphors and aesthetics of such Allen works as Blue Jasmine, Match Point and the exquisitely nihilistic Crimes and Misdemeanors; the latter was a great film with its obvious nod to Dostoevsky.

Set in 1950s Coney Island, Wonder Wheel is narrated by 24-year-old lifeguard Mickey Rubin (Justin Timberlake), a stick figure who plans to be a playwright and assesses all experiences through the dramatist’s eye (e.g., how does an event in life work structurally/thematically) and/or as potential attributes to his persona as writer.

Thinking about his affair with Ginny (Kate Winslet), a local waitress pushing 40, he justifies the relationship this way: “She’s older…fits into the romantic narrative of a writer’s life.” In short, he’s a horse’s ass and it’s hard to fathom how anyone breathing would be drawn to him. But this is a world of the desperate.

The aforementioned Ginny was an aspiring actress before she married a drummer with whom she had a son, Richie (Jack Gore). But that marriage went south when Ginny had an affair with someone else. Hubby jumped ship, leaving her destitute until Humpty (what a name), a burly, bullying but ultimately goodhearted Ralph Kramden prototype (Jim Belushi) married her.

Ginny is grateful but has nothing in common with him; he likes fishing while she gravitates to the arts. Worse, he has a terrible temper, especially when he drinks; and his modest income as a carousel operator affords her few creature comforts. Their small, overstuffed apartment—at one time housing a freak show—sits directly behind Wonder Wheel, Coney Island’s giant and iconic Ferris wheel that revolves outside their window all day. Additional amusement-park noises from a nearby gun arcade and large, boisterous crowds are unremitting.

Suffering from migraines, Ginny often retreats into her past when she was acting. Indeed, she’s still acting, insisting that she is not a real waitress, but rather one who is “playing” a waitress. She fingers old costumes lovingly and rehearses anticipated conversations with pauses, inflections and emphasis, while scrutinizing her expressions in a mirror, as if she were gearing up for an audition. She also loves reading movie magazines and escaping to the movies (sounds like The Purple Rose of Cairo).

When she’s not imagining herself onstage, Ginny is just plain unhappy, a fact of life only enhanced by her son’s predilection for setting fires (an unintentionally comic touch) and the sudden appearance of Humpty’s twenty-something daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) from his previous marriage. She is fleeing her gangster husband and soon surpasses Ginny in her father’s affections—at least that’s how Ginny interprets their close bond. (Is this Allen's self-referential nod to his wife, Soon-Yi?)

Finding solace as she walks along Coney Island beach on a windswept, foggy day (lots of atmosphere), Ginny meets Mickey. They strike up a conversation, realizing they share a deep commitment to theatre, and within short order they’re having an affair that grows increasingly significant to Ginny, who has little doubt she has met her soul mate.

Predictably enough, Mickey has no such feelings for her, especially when he encounters her pretty, young stepdaughter. They too talk theatre—e.g., Ernest Jones’ seminal psychoanalytic work, Hamlet and Oedipus (hey, this is Woody Allen world)—and it doesn’t take long for Mickey and Carolina to fall in love.

Consumed with jealousy, Ginny disintegrates and she does something—more precisely doesn’t do what she should—with disastrous results. Here it is: the tragic flaw. Just like classic Greek theatre. Only in this instance it’s naturalistic theatre/film of the post-World War II era. And to drive home the point, Ginny, now in a psychic free fall, morphs into a Blanche DuBois-Norma Desmond hybrid, the line between performance and reality blurred.

Remember Allen’s Blue Jasmine, his updated Streetcar Named Desire? In that one, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), a Blanche DuBois descendant, also decomposes in the wake of taking an irrevocable action. Both Ginny and Jasmine are frail, fragile and dangerous.

So too are Dolores Paley (Anjelica Huston) in Crimes and Misdemeanors, Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson) in Match Point and Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz) in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. They’re all dependent on the kindness of strangers.

But Ginny is not of their camp. She’s a working stiff, blue-collar to the core, thus adding another layer of vulnerability to her already fractured sense of self. And this is where Allen really misses the mark. As much as he wants to feel empathy for the hoi polloi, his disconnect is obvious. Just consider Humpty, a tad too loud, oafish and blatantly indifferent to the “finer” things—indeed, to anything short of sports. Allen aspires to recreate Paddy Chayefsky’s stomping grounds, but can’t quite pull it off. The seams show.

That’s the stumbling block throughout the film. You are always aware of what Allen’s attempting to do and then evaluating how well he’s doing it. Watching the film is an exercise in observation. Emotional engagement plays virtually no role.

Some sections fare worse than others. A subplot involving low-level Mafioso goons (Steven Schirripa and Tony Sirico) tracking down Carolina is predictable and Allen’s Italian-American clown-thugs are tiresome. (We’ve done Bullets Over Broadway andBroadway Danny Rose.) Allen cannot get past ethnic caricatures. Let’s be grateful there are no Jewish women in this one.

Still, Allen’s portrayal of a stepfamily awash in warring undercurrents and strapped for cash is spot-on. Humpty loves Ginny, but his feelings for Carolina are primal (the blood connection is defining) though not sexual. The same is true for Ginny’s relationship with her son Richard, who is allegedly “acting out” with his pyrotechnic stunts and in need of psychiatric help. Both parents are tapping into the family’s limited finances—fostering even greater friction between them—to help out their respective biological children.

Also in Allen’s favor, he feels no need to be politically correct (at least not yet). Ginny is a desperate, dependent clinger and Mickey dumps Ginny for Carolina, who is 15 years her junior. It may not be PC and we’ve seen the dynamic onscreen from time immemorial, but it’s regrettably truthful.

The film’s imagery is its highpoint: the Coney Island universe, tawdry and magical, strident and elegiac. Mickey describes the scene as a “honky-tonk fairyland,” and that’s exactly what it is with its neon-lit signage and iron structures (parachute, rollercoaster, titular Ferris wheel) that form massive and lacey black silhouettes set against a stretch of sky, a boardwalk lined with kitschy souvenir stores, and the beach blanketed with swimmers and sunbathers end to end.

Production designer Santo Loquasto and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro do a splendid job creating a backdrop for a story about the most marginalized. The film’s score, right out of the Great American Songbook, is perfect. Ditto, Suzy Benzinger'speriod costumes.

Allen frequently looks back to earlier eras with nostalgia (Radio Days) and is fascinated by the power of the amusement park to attract and repel. In Annie Hall, Allen’s alter ego Alvy Singer grew up in a house under the Coney Island rollercoaster and was terrified by its huge scale, shrieking riders and proximity.

But in Wonder Wheel the elements do not meld organically, feeling self-conscious and calculated instead. It’s hard not to compare this film to Louis Malle’s Atlantic City, also depicting outliers in a rundown seaside setting but where environment and narrative meshed.

Much praise has already been showered on Winslet’s performance; many reviewers discern great complexity in her interpretation. I do not. The character as written is not much more than a sad sack and she does it nicely. As for her big whack-a-doodle scene, it justifiably elicited titters at the screening I attended. The script and direction are to blame.

Similarly, Humpty is a one-dimensional creation and Belushi pulls off a blustering lug as well as can be expected. Timberlake as the credibility-free Mickey has the most thankless job. On the flip side, in a small, deceptively undemanding role, Temple is superb in making a wide-eyed naïf intelligent and sensitive. Mercifully, her character wasn’t overthought at the writer’s end.

Like many Allen films, Wonder Wheel concludes on an open-ended, ambiguous note. We don’t know what will happen next, though we surmise not much will change. In a flawed film, the final snippet feels brutally real.

Click here for cast and crew information.