Observed in a vacuum, “Wonder Wheel” is a kaleidoscope of lights and delights with best-in-class cinematography, perfect casting and impeccable period detail. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro lovingly lights actors’ faces with stained-glass-window colors. Kate Winslet has rarely been better in a part that lets her talent unfurl and bloom in new ways, and Jim Belushi is great as her character’s schlubby, unsatisfying husband. Its setting in 1950s Coney Island allows costume designer Suzy Benzinger room to play, with dresses that elicit gasps of pleasure.
However, in his signature opening credits style, “Wonder Wheel” announces that it is the latest film written and directed by Woody Allen. For a film that is often so enjoyably self-aware, it displays a profound lack of that knowledge when it comes to aspects of the film echoing the auteur’s own biography – or it may be the director intentionally thumbing his nose at his critics. But beyond these issues, an uneven tone and a clear disdain for its protagonist also mar “Wonder Wheel.”
Winslet stars as Ginny, a former actress and current waitress, whose alcoholic, abusive husband, Humpty (Belushi), and her misbehaving, fire-starting son, Richie (Jack Gore), exhaust her. She finds joy in an affair with Mickey Rubin (Justin Timberlake), a Coney Island lifeguard and aspiring playwright, who also narrates the film. Meanwhile, Humpty’s estranged daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), arrives and brings tension into both Ginny’s marriage and her affair.
At first, Ginny’s character feels like a welcome response to criticism that Allen’s films always revolve around a romance between an older man and a younger woman, and the May-December relationship between Ginny and Mickey is a nice change. Unfortunately, “Wonder Wheel” calls frequent attention to Ginny’s age, though this is rarely a focus when the dynamic is reversed in his previous movies. *Minor spoiler ahead* The director’s own biography also figures into the film with Ginny and her stepdaughter vying for Mickey’s affections, mirroring Allen’s own life with then-partner Mia Farrow and her daughter Soon-Yi Previn, now Allen’s wife. We’re not supposed to sympathize with Ginny, but the human reaction is to take her side. Allen’s smart enough that he can’t be unaware of these parallels and it feels like a gleeful poke at those who have taken issue with these choices. *End spoiler*
Allen’s drama has a sense of Drama-with-a-capital-D, thanks to its playwright narrator. While “Blue Jasmine” was Allen’s ode to Tennessee Williams, “Wonder Wheel” is a tip of the director’s floppy hat to Eugene O’Neill and even references him by name. Scenes unfold in Humpty and Ginny’s apartment, and the long takes and mise en scène make it feel as though you’re sitting two rows away from a stage. However, O’Neill’s plays are marked by psychological complexity, and much of “Wonder Wheel” refuses to plumb those depths, despite the solid work of the actors.
Greek drama also gets a nod, which is unsurprising given the genre’s influence on O’Neill as well, and it all feels like a classical tragedy. As the film frequently reminds us with a wink, Ginny is the architect of her own downfall. With the humanity that Winslet endows to her character, this is difficult for the audience to watch. The film alternates between a giggly comedy and a serious drama, and it treats Ginny with far more disdain than most (male) protagonists in Allen’s work. “Wonder Wheel” demonstrates no empathy toward her, but we feel these emotions despite its best efforts.
Much of our sympathy is due to Winslet. Ginny is flawed – and well aware of those flaws – but her situation is awful. Winslet brings a versatility that lets her glow with happiness in the best moments of her relationship with Mickey, as well as spark in her anger toward Humpty and Carolina. Belushi works well as Humpty, grumbling through dialogue in a way that feels real for the film and its setting. Temple is a solid actress, but there’s not a lot of depth to Carolina beyond what she brings. Similarly, Timberlake doesn’t get to stretch a lot with Mickey, but he looks – and acts – the part of a ’50s charmer.
Building on the beauty of their last collaboration “Cafe Society,” Storaro and Allen have partnered to make the most visually stunning film of the director’s decades-long career. The setting helps, of course, with Storaro’s cinematography and the special effects team’s work recreating a Coney Island worthy of vintage postcards. However, the lighting and the vibrant palette is what elevates the movie’s look, with particular care paid to shots of the actors.
It’s impossible to watch “Wonder Wheel” without letting Allen himself and the current response to Harvey Weinstein not color the (absolutely gorgeous) viewing experience. But even ignoring beyond the biographical details and real-world shadows, this is an imperfect, if entirely beautiful, film. [B-]
Not a review of the movie.
Woody Allen should retire.
Jimmy Siu Yan Ngai
such a generous review.