AMAZON STUDIOS (2018)
Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Jim Belushi, Juno Temple, Justin Timberlake, Kate Winslet, Jack Gore
“When it comes to love we all turn out to be our own worst enemy.”
Woody Allen’s 48th cinematic offering comes in the shape of Wonder Wheel. A love triangle (of course) between a discarded young beauty, an unhappily married damsel in distress and a charming lifeguard is the focal point of the movie, all set against the colourful, vibrant backdrop of 1950’s Coney Island. At times, it’s Woody-by-numbers, but here we find him on a darker ebb – there’s less of the old zing and more pathos here, but it’s still undeniably a Woody Allen movie.
Stifled by her marriage to oafish carousel operator Humpty (Belushi), depressed as a clam bar waitress, burdened with a pyromaniac son and hurtling towards her fortieth birthday, Ginny (Winslet) isn’t exactly a beacon of happiness. That all changes when a chance meeting with hunky lifeguard Mickey (Timberlake) quickly turns into a clandestine romance. For Ginny, it’s acceptance and a fresh chance, and for Mickey it’s fate and just like it happens in the stage plays – passion against the sun-kissed carnival atmosphere, lovely. When Humpty’s estranged daughter, Carolina (Temple), turns up at her father’s cabin lodge, everything changes. On the run from her now ex-husband/gangster, Carolina needs somewhere to lay low and start afresh and where better than Coney Island? After taking a job with Ginny at the clam bar, wires and emotions become tangled when the two women bump into Mickey and suddenly everybody likes each other, but not everyone can have everything they want.
Narrated by Justin Timberlake, Wonder Wheel presents us with a Coney Island stacked with people dogged by their past: bad decisions, broken marriages, infidelity, drinking problems and damaged dreams – there’s not a lot of joy to be found here. That is until the romance begins and the sun bursts open, the carnival swings with a free-flowing joy and even the rain seems positive. As the movie unfolds, the bleak nature of the narrative is set against an effervescent backdrop – the comedy takes a back seat for the most part, with Richie (Gore), Ginny’s fire-loving son, carrying the majority of the movies laughs with infrequent silent arson skits.
Kate Winslet is superb here, delivering a melancholic, emotional performance crammed full of giddy optimism and crushing despair. It’s always good to see the marvellous Juno Temple and her grounded performance is splendid, so too Jim Belushi who rides the fine line between apathy and hamminess just right. JT is framed as a young James Dean lookalike, and whilst not near the levels of the Dean, he’s pretty good as the breezy hunk.
The cinematography from Vittorio Storaro is once again stunningly beautiful. The flair of the Coney Island carnival is lovingly captured with a delicious clarity, vivid oranges bathe Ginny’s bedroom as her stress begins to rise and fantastic beach/boardwalk long-shots portray a perfect blue-skied bubble. It’s award-worthy work from Storaro. Against the visuals, old school music (i.e. The Mills Brothers) is piped through the screen to capture further the 1950’s feel the movie delivers.
At times, Wonder Wheel feels very stagey, especially scenes in the claustrophobic cabin house the family shares. Characters walking past the windows and entering the house just on cue felt like something straight out of the theatre and some of the beats felt too obvious. The dialogue, for the most part, is good, at times unnecessarily wordy, but that being said, there are some great monologues (from Winslet) including a firecracker regarding marriage.
Wonder Wheel isn’t ‘vintage’ Woody and it does eschew certain elements of his successful past cinematic endeavours, but it’s still a fine movie. The (intermittent) fun moments are indeed fun, the speeches great, it looks sumptuous and Winslet is on fire throughout – whilst certainly not perfect, Wonder Wheel is a very good, warm, yet toned-down offering from a prolific movie-maker.
January 10th 2018