Woody Allen returns to the big screen following his 6-part television series, Crisis In Six Scenes, (produced for Amazon Studios) with Wonder Wheel, a fanciful drama set on Coney Island in the 1950s. Having publicly expressed his frustrations with the longer format of television, Allen sought comfort in the nostalgic period setting that he has explored so wonderfully over the years in films like Bullets Over Broadway, The Purple Rose of Cairo and Radio Days, to name a few.
It’s incredible to consider that despite his television series, it was only 12 months ago that his previous feature film – Cafe Society – was released theatrically, reaffirming him to be one of Hollywood’s most prolific filmmakers. His process of creating each film begins with him pulling a hand-written title out of a box. He has been jotting down titles for decades and he builds upon whatever name comes from the lucky dip. In this case it was Wonder Wheel, a reference to the famous Ferris wheel attraction at the Coney Island amusement park.
The film opens with a stunningly vibrant recreation of the famous beachside attraction in all of its romantic glory. The beach is crowded with holidaymakers, sunbathers and umbrellas on a glorious summer’s day as the roller coaster barrels down its dip and the giant Wonder Wheel looms above the crowded scene. This opening moment presents a beautiful snap-shot of a time gone by, and Allen’s affection for the era is captured delightfully. At this moment we are introduced to the film’s narrator, a handsome lifeguard (Justin Timberlake) who shares his sordid story with the audience.
Kate Winslet plays Ginny, a cantankerous woman whose life amounts to waiting tables at a local clam house. She is miserable in her second marriage to Humpty (Jim Belushi) and struggles to control her young son, who has a penchant for arson. She discovers a new lease on life when she meets the local lifeguard and begins a whirlwind affair, only to spiral into uncontrollable jealousy when Humpty’s daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) walks back into his life and falls for the same guy. Carolina’s return brings with it a couple of mobsters, who followed her when she fled from her abusive mobster husband.
Wonder Wheel is essentially a four-person story that chronicles a bizarre love triangle and one woman’s fractured emotional state of mind. Allen’s story unfolds like a play, and could have just as easily been crafted for the stage. With the majority of the story taking place in two locations it is a somewhat minimalist presentation, lifted by a glorious production design and a beautiful lighting arrangement. The screen is a kaleidoscope of colours, which makes this one of Allen’s most visceral films to date, and this bodes very well in its favour given the fact that the script itself is flat and lifeless.
The cast are mostly good and Winslet leads the small ensemble with a neurotic performance that reflects Allen’s own famous on-screen persona. She handles the material well and makes the most of the lacklustre material provided. The same can be said for the others, with Belushi offering a slobbish, mildly abusive yet somewhat charming performance that extracts as much charisma from Allen’s script as possible. Temple doesn’t add much to the story, other than her presence, and had her character’s purpose not been influential on the narrative’s trajectory, her part would be forgettable. Timberlake impresses with his typically fetching magnetism, and he proves to be an ideal narrator, as well as a fitting love interest for both women.
Allen’s films usually include a string of additional players, however in this instance it’s a case of ‘blink and you’ll miss ’em’. Be careful not to look away, otherwise risk missing appearances from the likes of David Krumhotlz, Max Casella, Bobby Slayton and Debi Mazar.
This review comes to you from a devoted Woody Allen fan, and one who might be more forgiving than most. He is often a hit & miss filmmaker, and yet with such a profound body of work behind him the hits recur more often than the misses. And even when he does overshoot his mark, he always manages to compensate with an appealing production design. Wonder Wheel is a remarkable-looking film that leaps off the screen, but there is very little substance to deem it a triumph, and Allen’s obvious sentimental connection to his youth seems to have distracted him from telling a decent story.
THE REEL SCORE: 5/10