** out of ****
(for thematic content including some sexuality, language, and smoking)
Released: December 1, 2017 limited; December 15 wide
Runtime: 110 minutes
Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Kate Winslet, Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple, Jim Belushi, Steve Schrirripa, Tony Sirico, David Krumholtz
A movie that looks this good shouldn’t be such a pain to watch.
One of the most visually stunning films of the year, or past several, Wonder Wheel can’t be marginalized as Woody Allen on autopilot. And yet the story that unfolds within that colorful eye-popping landscape is just a rehash of Allen’s greatest thematic hits, with a cast that (except for one) strains helplessly to make the material compelling.
Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and Production Designer Santo Loquasto do some truly spectacular work, but nobody else does.
Set against the backdrop of a 1950s Coney Island amusement park, Wonder Wheel has all the Woody Allen tropes. Infidelity, regrets, and existential angst. Fate, coincidence, and destiny. Extreme moral compromise and “What’s the point?” philosophizing. There’s even a love triangle involving a man falling for his lover’s step-daughter. Talk about writing what you know.
Kate Winslet plays Ginny, a former actress now unhappily married to carousel grunt Humpty (Jim Belushi). His estranged daughter Carolina (Juno Temple), Ginny’s step-daughter, shows up on the run from mobsters employed by her violent husband.
The real complication, however, occurs when Carolina catches the eye of Ginny’s lover Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a lifeguard seeking his masters while dreaming of becoming an important playwright.
The vibrant images – with color that saturates the screen, often washed in golden-hour amber hues – mask the script’s problems, but only for awhile. Eventually, the generic machinations wear thin, as do the unconvincing performances. Timberlake’s too self-consciously suave and earnest, and Belushi is asked to yell too much, but it’s Winslet that grates.
A high-strung harpy, Winslet’s Ginny is another Blanche Dubois archetype from Allen, following Cate Blanchett’s deserved Oscar-winning turn in Blue Jasmine. All anxiety and no depth, Ginny isn’t nearly as well-written as Jasmine was, each a streetcar with ill-fated desire. Winslet plays to the rafters rather than the close-up, exaggerating Ginny’s bipolar irrationality beyond proportion.
More problematic is Winslet’s excessive control over every mood swing. Blanchett’s Jasmine was genuinely fragile, always on the verge (or in the middle) of a nervous breakdown. Winslet’s neurosis simply becomes increasingly unbearable. Allen didn’t make Ginny sympathetic, but Winslet could have. Instead, she simply doubles-down on being an unconscionable, amoral shrill.
As the step-daughter foil, Juno Temple’s grounded performance stands out in an otherwise overwrought ensemble. There’s a sincerity to Carolina, and depth, that’s entirely lacking elsewhere, with a range of nuances that elicit empathy. Temple seems to be of this particular world, and in every moment, while everyone else is merely playing a part.
The real kicker: Allen has the gall to make Mickey, his philandering stand-in narrator, serve as the film’s voice of moral clarity. It’s the most blatant shade he’s ever thrown at ex Mia Farrow, and it’s an ugly look, especially for a guy who should just let sleeping peccadilloes lie.