What can Woody Allen do to bring new life to the ol’ Woody Allen formula? In “Wonder Wheel”, Allen sets his latest romance against the backdrop of NY’s Coney Island in the 1950s. The film opens startlingly, with Justin Timberlake talking directly to us. And we soon realize that Allen has structured “Wonder Wheel” as a “modern” version of a Shakespearean play: complete with all of the Bard’s (and Allen’s) favorite elements: romance, betrayal, danger, anger and strange family dynamics.
Timberlake’s Mickey is our on-screen narrator. He’s a lifeguard, aspiring writer and lover of the arts. He leads us through this up-and-down rollercoaster of a story, which rarely provides any excitement or thrills.
Kate Winslet plays Ginny. She’s a nearly 40-year-old waitress who works at a Coney Island boardwalk clam restaurant. She has a grade-school son from her first marriage, who, for some reason, is obsessed with starting fires. Ginny’s current husband is Humpty (Jim Belushi). He operates the merry-go-round, loves to fish, and has both drinking and anger management problems.
Humpty’s 26-year-old daughter from his previous marriage, Carolina (Juno Temple), suddenly shows up on the boardwalk looking for a fresh start. She left her gangster husband – who wants her back. Mickey will soon become entangled in this family soap opera.
Allen’s worn-out trademark – complicated romantic relationships – is dominant yet again in “Wonder Wheel”. His best recent films, “Midnight in Paris” and “Blue Jasmine”, didn’t rely on this theme. That’s one of the reasons they stand out. “Wonder Wheel”, on the other hand, is paint-by-numbers Allen.
The dramatic gimmick calls for theatrical staging and performances – and boy do we get plenty of both. Every syllable of every word of every piece of dialogue is projected to the back row. The characters don’t have conversations, they make speeches. Allen’s constant tinkering with lighting, in the middle of scenes, is completely distracting. And, like the amusement park ride that inspired the title, the story goes ’round in circles, ending-up in no better a location than when it started.
Timberlake has a few moments, but unlike some of his other live-action roles, you can’t help but feel like you’re watching music superstar Justin Timberlake here instead of Mickey, the swooning, charming, former soldier and literary aficionado. Winslet and Belushi give stagey, over-the-top performances, in order to fit the style. You don’t believe either of them for a second. Only Temple’s work seems at all natural.
“Wonder Wheel” is a frustrating film. Maybe it would have worked better as a play. Then again, probably not.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Wonder Wheel” gets a D.
Running Time: 101 min.