Woody Allen has been a very controversial figure in Hollywood for quite some time, and for many people it is difficult, or even impossible, to separate the figure from the work. Allen’s history of sexual abuse allegations and personal moral status are aspects of the director that should be considered and taken into account when watching his films. Those who feel they cannot or should not separate the man from his work have just as firm a ground to stand on when compared to those who would instead judge his writing and films on their quality alone. Wonder Wheel does not feature Allen in any visual manner—he is not a character, and his directorial and writing style is not as prevalent as it is in films like Manhattan, Annie Hall, or even the more recent Café Society. His lack of presence makes it slightly easier to judge Wonder Wheel as a movie alone, which for the purpose of this review, is the goal.
Wonder Wheel focuses on a poor couple living and working in Coney Island in the 1950s. Humpty Rannell (Jim Belushi) is a carousel operator who has begrudgingly quit drinking. His wife, Ginny Rannell (Kate Winslet), is an ex-actress who pines for the stage while she works at a clam shop. She is trying to care for her troubled son Richie (Jack Gore), who she had by a previous relationship. This loosely-knit family appears to be struggling until the appearance of Humpty’s estranged daughter Carolina (Juno Temple), who is on the run from the mob. Humpty and Ginny take her in against their better judgement (and Ginny’s wishes) in an attempt to get her back on her feet. While this is happening, Ginny begins a passionate love affair with one of the Coney Island lifeguards, Mickey Rubin (Justin Timberlake). Oh, and Richie likes to start fires and steal money from Humpty.
If this sounds overly complex and needlessly complicated, or like an enormous amount of information to be front-loaded in a movie, that’s because it’s apparently on purpose. Wonder Wheel begins with narration and direct address by Timberlake’s character Mickey. Mickey is an aspiring playwright who is telling this story to the audience. He admits that he might have embellished characters, situations, and plot points in order to make everything more dramatic and interesting. It is here that Wonder Wheel meets with its tragic flaw. The employment of an intentionally unreliable narrator is an interesting narrative device. Mickey’s revisionist approach to this story could account for a more stylized and theatrical film. Yet, Wonder Wheel seems to use it to explain away heavy exposition, overly dramatic dialogue, overacting to the point of making a meal out of the scenery, and the overuse of certain visual effects that will be discussed later.
No, Wonder Wheel would have the audience chalk up any flaws to Mickey’s story-telling ability. If the characters exposit a lot of key information in their normal conversation, Wonder Wheel would tell us that it’s only because Mickey is still studying drama, and has yet to master it. If the dialogue feels clichéd and theatrical, it’s because Mickey is seeking to emulate the emotion that he has seen on stage. If the acting is too dramatic or exaggerated, it’s simply due to Mickey’s desire to turn this story into a stage performance. Yet, this easy excuse does not salvage or absolve the film from these issues. It’s still annoying to watch Jim Belushi and Kate Winslet chew on scenery and it’s frustrating to watch these talented actors respond as if they were on stage. Wonder Wheel, as much as it might like to be a play, is still a movie. Most films, especially a wannabe arthouse movie like this, require nuanced and subtle performances. The audience can see every detail on a character’s face in a film. In a play, this might be excusable, because the actors have to project their voices, actions, and emotions to the people at the back of the theater.
Wonder Wheel also uses lighting as if it were a play on stage. Throughout the movie, the characters become entirely bathed in either blue or orange light. It’s not just a tint to the lighting of the scene. The entirety of the character on screen is absolutely covered in very visible orange or blue light. This might be explained away as a stylistic choice, especially with the way that theatre productions use colored lights to set moods and scenes on stage. Instead of being this, however, these colored washes appear as glaring reminders that Wonder Wheel is a production, and is not something the audience can become immersed in.
These glaring flaws stop Wonder Wheel from being the heavily stylized, artistic, and theatrical movie that it clearly wants to be. It leaves the movie as a frustrating period piece that doesn’t accomplish its clear goals. Wonder Wheel cannot even be called a love letter to 1950s Coney Island, because very little of this film is actually influenced by the setting. There are very few redemptive qualities to bring Wonder Wheel out from under itself. There are plenty of other artistic movies that are actually quality films coming out at this time of year, and Wonder Wheel is not among them.
Featured Image by Amazon Studios