Review: WONDER WHEEL

By Mark Saldana

Rating 2 (Out of 4 Stars)

With Blue Jasmine, filmmaker Woody Allen presents a story heavily influenced by Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, but maintains the cinematic quality of its presentation.  The film is not only an intriguing character study, but is also an amazing showcase of Cate Blanchett’s acting prowess. Allen once again attempts to channel the acclaimed Southern playwright (via his New York sensibilities), but this time, sets his movie very much like a play.  The movie, Wonder Wheel, has elements in common with both Blue Jasmine and A Streetcar Named Desire, and is an awesome showcase for actress Kate Winslett; however, Allen’s story failed to intrigue or move me.  In addition, most of the characters have such hateful qualities and make such idiotic decisions that I simply could not empathize or relate to them.  The result is a pretty looking film with some great performances, but no heart and soul.

Set at a Coney Island amusement park during the 1950s, Wonder Wheel tells the melodramatic story of Ginny (Winslett), an unhappy former actress who works as a waitress in a clam house while her husband Humpty (Jim Belushi) works as the carousel operator at the amusement park.  Ginny and Humpty live in a tight quarters inside the amusement park, just outside of the “Wonder Wheel” ferris wheel ride.  Once a promising actress and the wife of a talented jazz drummer, Ginny longs for the excitement and passion of those happier times and has grown frustrated with her now mundane existence.  Things get a bit more exciting for her when Coney Island lifeguard and aspiring writer Mickey Rubin (Justin Timberlake) takes an interest in her.  The two begin having an affair and Ginny eventually sees Mickey as a way out of her current situation.  Mickey’s interest doesn’t last long, though, and when Humpty’s daughter and Ginny’s stepdaughter Carolina (Juno Temple) enters the picture, Mickey sets his sights on her.

Written and directed by Woody Allen, Wonder Wheel aesthetically looks gorgeous.  Most of the scenes look vibrant and rich with color and legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro has composed and captured some truly beautiful shots.  Allen once again selects some jaunty old timey jazz numbers to accompany some scenes and some scene changes, but these musical choices feel totally out of place given the more dramatic nature of this movie.

Though the film is obviously intended as a melodrama, Allen can’t help but include attempts at humor, but most of these attempts fall flat. This awkward handling of the tone is only one of the problems with this film, though.  The love triangle with the smarmy lothario lifeguard, the irritating and self-centered Ginny and the sweet, but dumb Carolina make for a story and characters about which I could not care any less. Allen also includes a subplot regarding the destructive behavior of Ginny’s son Richie (Jack Gore) that goes nowhere and only serves as an awkward attempt at bizarre humor.

As I stated above, Winslett delivers a stellar performance as Ginny, but unfortunately it is a great performance of a poorly written character. The same goes for Justin Timberlake’s Mickey.  Timberlake performs well as the charming, but duplicitous lifeguard who also serves as the film’s not completely reliable narrator.  However, neither character seems to have any shred of decency or have any fascinating or compelling qualities that make me want to care about their fates.  I was not at all impressed with Jim Belushi who gives a ham-fisted turn as the oafish cuckold Humpty.  Juno Temple is perfectly cast as the lovable and earnest Carolina, but the character makes such poor judgment calls that I had only limited empathy for her.

And that overally apathy that this film had me feeling is why this movie simply does not work.  Though Allen has handled both comedy and drama well in the past (sometimes within the same film), and has created riveting characters and stories, this movie fails on all of those levels.  It has been speculated that this film (like some of his others) has been inspired by controversial events in his life.  Perhaps he should stop dwelling on past relationship woes and try something different because that well has gone dry.

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