Four years ago, many critics were drawing comparisons between Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine and the works of Tennessee Williams, in particular the central character of a woman so completely crushed by her place in the world that it drove her insane. Allen’s latest film, Wonder Wheel, has a similar milieu, although the writer-director seems to be leaning into the plays of Eugene O’Neil, who was borrowing heavily in his day from the works of the great Russian writers that Allen is also fond of.
Set among those who live and work at the Coney Island amusement park in the 1950s, Wonder Wheel centers on Ginny (Kate Winslet), a waitress at an oyster bar, who at one point had aspirations of being an actress (and perhaps she still does). She’s married to Humpty, a highly disagreeable carousel operator (Jim Belushi), who falls on and off the wagon with alarming regularity. She also has a son, Richie (Jack Gore), from her first marriage, and all we really know about the little tyke is that he likes to start fires.
Two events occur in Ginny’s small world that throw everything into disorder: first, Humpty’s grown, estranged daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) shows up unexpectedly. Ginny has never met Carolina, who left home to get married years earlier to a known gangster, a guy who is now chasing after her after she left him. Second, Ginny meets Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a charming life guard with aspirations of becoming a playwright (he also acts as our unnecessary narrator), a notion that sparks Ginny’s hopes of getting back into acting. The two start a torrid affair, and Ginny believes that theycould run away together. Of course, all of these notions are the empty dreams of a woman who hates every corner of her life, from her dead-end job and her firebug kid to her loveless marriage to a man more willing to show affection to his no-good daughter than her.
Wonder Wheel isn’t a terrible movie, and anyone who says it is is likely overcompensating for having ever been supportive of Allen’s works in the past. Usually with his films, you don’t see Allen trying so hard as a writer. But here, there seems to be a concerted effort to mimic playwrights like O’Neill to such a degree that everything feels overdone. Even Winslet, who is literally good in everything, struggles in her attempt to give Ginny some depth before losing her mind with jealousy as Mickey and Carolina start to develop feelings for each other. It’s a strange, backward world when Jim Belushi is your high watermark in any film (not unlike Andrew “Dice” Clay was in Blue Jasmine).
Ultimately, my biggest issues with Wonder Wheel had to do with me not finding an entry point into the story, which seems intent on keeping the audience at a distance. Even with Timberlake as the narrator (and a self-professed unreliable one, at that), it’s tough to like any of these characters enough to want to stroll into this story with them. Ginny can’t face reality, Humpty is an unfeeling lout, Carolina is an opportunist, and Mickey is a two-timing cad. Who wants to hang out with that bunch?
Sure, the cinematography by the great Vittorio Storaro is sublime, and the use of colors and lighting to reflect emotional turbulence or serenity is exceptional, but when the performances and writing are so universally grating and heightened, my instincts are to recoil from the screen. Wonder Wheel is middling Allen at best. In case you couldn’t tell, it’s not meant to be a comedy, but it suffers in comparison to far better dramas from the filmmaker. As always, I look forward to what he has coming up next. But if you’re more selective about which of his film you pay money to see, you can probably skip this one.