The most striking thing about Woody Allen’s latest film, his third project for Amazon, is how lushly lit it is. Leading actresses Kate Winslet and Juno Temple’s red and blonde hair appears to always be glowing in golden light, whether in day or night scenes; and the gorgeousness of the color schemes employed by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro is palpable in every scene.
It’s too bad that it’s all in the service of the tired themes and clichéd characters that make up WONDER WHEEL, yet another nostalgic period piece from the Woodman – one that recalls the aura of his previous works CAFÉ SOCIETY (which Storaro also shot) PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO, RADIO DAYS, and that fantasy flashback in ANNIE HALL where Allen’s Alvy Singer reminiscences about being brought up underneath the roller coaster in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn.
In very Allen-esque opening narration, Justin Timberlake sets the scene: “Coney Island, 1950s. The boardwalk.” The camera pans over a crowded beach until it hits Timberlake, as Mickey Rubin, a lifeguard who identifies himself as an aspiring playwright, breaking the fourth wall to tell us he’s got a story to tell, “in which I am a character so be warned as a poet I use symbols and as a budding dramatist, I relish melodrama and larger than life characters.”
Mickey introduces Carolina (Juno Temple), who has unexpectedly come back into the lives of her carousel operator father Humpty (Jim Belushi), and her stepmother Ginny (Winslet), because she is seeking refuge from the mob due to being marked by her never seen gangster husband.
Humpty and Ginny live in a shabby apartment, which used to house a freak show, with big open windows that has a great wide ranging view of the park including of the towering ferris wheel of the title. This is all back-drop to a well worn narrative involving a love triangle between Mickey, Ginny and Carolina.
Ginny dreams of running off with Mickey, but then Mickey falls for Carolina, despite the threat of a mafia hit job, which is made clear in a bit that has Sopranos regulars Tony Sirico (in his sixth film for Allen) and Steve Schirripa come to question Humpty about his daughter’s whereabouts.
There’s also a subplot about Ginny’s pyromaniac son that doesn’t really go anyhere, but it does provide shots of fire that go along with the rest of the movie’s orange bathed in blue glow.
Perhaps in the same vein that Andrew Dice Clay gained cred for his role in Allen’s BLUE JASMINE, Belushi puts in a great supporting performance as an angry, broken down working class slob who trying to stay on the wagon. I wouldn’t say it’s quite worth a Oscar nomination, but it nicely continues the ‘hey, Jim Belushi isn’t bad!’ vibe from his appearance on the Twin Peaks revival early this year.
Winslet’s acerbic Ginny is the dominant character here as the film seems to focus on her neurosis over her stepdaughter’s impending involvement with Mickey, and her frazzled attempts to thwart their romance. Winslet puts her all into her acting and anchors the film until it and she goes off the rails.
Timberlake’s Mickey wasn’t lying when he said he uses symbols as he even says “The heart has its own hieroglyphics” when trying to chose between Ginny and Carolina. He also speaks of “the tragic human condition” while giving Ginny a book of Eugene O’Neil’s plays for her birthday – an example of Allen’s screenplay laying it on a bit thick.
All this is transparent decoration around another one of his ‘women be crazy’ plotlines. The repetitive and overly drawn out dialogue doesn’t help either.
WONDER WHEEL’s melodramatic (Mickey wasn’t fooling there either) mix of hefty philosophizing with an all too typical tale of ill-fated infatuation makes for one of Allen’s least satisfying films of his later career.
But while it’s far from his best work, it may be his best looking movie. With hope, the Woodman, in his next film, A RAINY DAY IN NEW YORK in which he’s again working with cinematographer Storaro, will come up with a story that’s as good as the visuals.