by Joe Hammerschmidt
At 24, this writer is still very new to the higher-brow end of American cinema, the realm of simple discovery never ceasing. Venerable director Woody Allen is a key example; I’m sure his work carries a more cerebral style of comedy, yet he’s still not that high a priority in my long watchlist. My first impression of his unique situational approach, 2014’s Magic in the Moonlight failed to light up a spark in the memory, with a strong cast making up for an overall boring screenplay. Skipping the two films which followed, I was rather hesitant in taking on his latest, and his second film for Amazon, Wonder Wheel. My concerns were justified, as this effort winds up teetering on the brink of hit-and-miss: beautiful to look at, but a slog to endure. What sets Wheel apart from Magic is a more palatable setting, convincing casting, and an unwavering female-driven dynamic, led by Kate Winslet in what may be her gutsiest role this decade. At the same time, such attributes lend to the film’s nasty downturn before it could possibly turn anywhere near enjoyable.
After the standard Allen credit typeface, he, along with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Café Society) waste no time in embracing the picture book-like quality of Coney Island, NY in the early 50s. It’s technically summertime, so of course, emotions would run a little higher. For overworked housewife Ginny (Winslet), distinguishing any seasons would be impossible. Once an aspiring actress, she had to settle for way, way less when her previous husband left her for irreconcilable differences, now collecting tips as a greasy spoon waitress. Her son Richie (Jack Gore) rebels in the typical product-of-a-bad-divorce fashion, that motif celebrated by literal fire-starting, scenes reflective of the slow-building chaos Allen is striving for, and by which Gore, the young kid from Showtime’s Billions stands out in unique form. Ginny’s less thrilled with current husband Humpty (Jim Belushi), a merry-go-round operator residing near the titular ferris wheel on the boardwalk barely making enough to keep their simple life afloat. He’s too quick to welcome his kid/her stepdaughter Carolina (Juno Temple) back home while waiting for a worthwhile collegiate opportunity. All this, despite her having some minor ties with a crime syndicate through her most recent ex.
Ginny just isn’t happy under these circumstances, nor is she convinced she ever had been. Knowing her world could come crashing down at a moment’s notice, she un-admittedly falls for Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a hipster-like beach lifeguard, as well as the film’s narrator, who in turn struggles to turn away Carolina, in a badly organized love triangle lacking in either decency or sensical behavior. While Timberlake considers himself a musician first and an actor second, there’s plenty of evidence to the one-time Mouseketeer to delivering a tensely dramatic scene as well as holding a tune for an audience of thousands on tour. He provides no singing here, just a dynamic range that works to his advantage, even with limitations preventing his character to grow entirely. As father and adopted son, Belushi (ever the reliable character actor), and Gore match appropriately to keep Winslet calm, but alas it isn’t their film.
From this beginner’s perspective, I can tell Allen knows strong leading female parts when he’s confident to write them into his scripts. Winslet, last seen chewing scenery in The Mountain Between Us (a cheesy drama I was possibly right to miss), understands an acting challenge when she discovers one, and in the case of Allen’s writing, it’s conveying a flurry of passion amid subject matter that’s otherwise equal parts mundane and private. The film as a whole depends on Winslet not to lose focus, to suddenly appear unconvincing as the mother well past the edge of a nervous breakdown. She thankfully succeeds in that respect, but it simply isn’t enough to hold the audience’s attention even further. The writing is still slightly unfavorable, nearly lacking in potential situational humor outside of Richie’s mischief, and completely hesitant in building real relationship structure. The film’s entire romantic equation nearly flies out the window at the halfway mark, the balancing act of Mickey’s half-hearted affairs suddenly losing grip, left to fade into the background as Ginny’s desperation fulfills its responsibility as an acting choice.
I’m confident Allen has created films that may stand the test of time more substantially versus Wonder Wheel, which may not age as well. Regardless of its dizzying sights, and a handful of quiet/compelling performances, the film simply can’t carry its weight too easily without Winslet’s assistance as the leading woman. Needless to say, the diehards will appreciate the filmmaking legend still in his element; for everyone else, worth a rental. (C)
Wonder Wheel opens in Seattle this weekend; AMC Seattle 10, Cinemark Lincoln Square; rated PG-13 for thematic content including some sexuality, language, and smoking; 101 minutes.