Straight out of the swingin’ fifties is Woody Allen’s latest romantic drama Wonder Wheel. It captures the mood, lights and the hopeless romance all rolled up from that era within the Coney Island boardwalk amusement park. The music and setting is upbeat and whimsical; the characters are anything but.
Kate Winslet, as once-divorced and slowly jaded mother Ginny, is the star of the show, and is allowed the space to deliver an acting masterclass. Ginny is a former actress who is married to the wildly emotional and physically abusive (but only when drinking) carnival operator Humpty (Jim Belushi, who also is quite excellent in this).
With a pyromaniac son who Ginny doesn’t have the time to discipline and a wavering teetotaler husband, Ginny is floundering in life. Cue lifeguard and boyishly handsome Mickey (Justin Timberlake) to save drowning Ginny. Mickey is the sometimes narrator who supplies Woody’s perspective on the goings on within Coney Island. Naive and narcissistic, the self described ‘hopeless romantic’ is looking for a good love story to tell as a playwright more so than the collateral love that comes with it. So it’s no surprise that when Ginny’s grown-up and beautiful step-daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) enters the frame, Mickey’s wondering eye has him doubting the substance of his feelings for Ginny. Picking up on the chemistry between the two of them, Ginny begins to double down on the relationship and her dreams of escaping her waitress job and domestic captivity.
The set and cinematography is beautifully captured by Vittorio Storaro. The drama and relationships however, never quite meet the same lofty standards. As the relationships unravel and Ginny’s temperament reaches near hysteria, the drama conversely grows lacklustre. Timberlake and his character Mickey can cop the fair share of the blame. Timberlake’s contstant deer in headlights expression and drawn out enunciation is distracting to put it nicely. Mickey’s devotion to only one girl changes with the tides of the beach. The continual dead pan monologues to the camera that justify his intentions belong more in Geordie Shore than Coney Island.
Along with the atmosphere the real drawstring for the film is Kate’s aforementioned phenomenal performance. Known for her disdain of one-dimensional female characters that litter many Hollywood scripts, she has embraced eclectic roles, and Ginny is one of her more interesting ones. Despite playing a self-centered antihero she manages to evoke great sympathy from her audience. When the carnival noises she detests die down and with the blue ocean light illuminating her, it’s almost impossible not to hang onto her every word as she breathes life into Allen’s dialogue. Her actions make her monstrous but it’s her underlying flaws that make her human.
When the proverbial hits the fan in Coney Island the crescendo of the film feels more like a breeze than a hurricane and viewers will feel somewhat robbed. Winslet once again saves the day with a superb monologue to close the feature. Woody is one of the few men who can write female characters really well. It has to be mentioned that Timberlake no doubt serves as his fictionalised biographical proxy; a romantic writer who yearns to leave his lover for her step-daughter. Wonder Wheel isn’t in the top tier of Allen films but close enough to it.
Wonder Wheel is in cinemas from 7th December through Entertainment One.