Movies · Reviews

‘Wonder Wheel’ Review: A Gorgeous, Yet Ultimately Empty Tragicomedy

Woody Allen’s latest is shallow and distancing despite its stunning craftsmanship.
By  · Published on October 14th, 2017

Woody Allen’s latest is shallow and distancing despite its stunning craftsmanship.

Wonder Wheel, Woody Allen’s Coney Island-set circa 1950s tragedy premiering at the 55th New York Film Festival tonight, is so gorgeous in its visuals that it might take you a while to notice the emptiness beneath its lustrous surface. Indeed, Allen’s latest is a craftsmanship wonder on all ends: a richly (if not a bit heavy-handedly) propped and costumed, gorgeously lit production you won’t be able to take your eyes off. Wrapped in an opulent package, Wonder Wheel at first feels like a handsome, melancholic telling of an ill-fated and classically Hollywood tale of summer romance; one that informs and transforms the mood with play on light that aims to illuminate the headspace of characters with shifts in intensity and color. But look deeper, reach beyond its glow and you will, once you get used to the prettiness of it all, find a shallow tragicomedy that’s neither funny in the signature, comforting Woody Allen sense or tragic à la Blue Jasmine or Match Point. Instead it’s almost stubbornly stuck somewhere in the middle.

A charming yet miscast Justin Timberlake plays Mickey Rubin, an aspiring, overconfident playwright who works his summers as a lifeguard on the overcrowded Brooklyn beach and hopes to write a “profound masterpiece” some day. Mickey quickly assumes the role of a mansplain-y raconteur that breaks the fourth wall, giving Joseph Gordon-Levitt in The Walk a run for his money in pointless and distracting first-person narration. The story he recounts involves Ginny (Kate Winslet), a dissatisfied ex-actress with a dead-end job as a waitress, a kindly husband who works as a carousel operator at the Coney Island Boardwalk (Jim Belushi, terrific as Humpty) and a problem child of a son who sets things on fire for no reason whatsoever (a running metaphoric gag that becomes unfunny, fast.) Taken by his infectious positivity and energy, Ginny embarks on a heated affair with Mickey, the steam of which we never fully feel or buy. Further trouble knocks on the door when the runaway Carolina (the ever charismatic Juno Temple), Humpty’s daughter from his previous marriage, arrives. Hiding from a pack of gangsters (one of which she had run away with despite his father’s protests, we later on find out), Carolina settles in with Ginny and Humpty, starts a job as a waitress and grows a deep (and mutual) attraction towards Mickey. Driven by mad jealousy, escalating despair (and chronic headaches), Ginny slowly goes off the deep end, carrying out nonsensical, grotesquely destructive actions.

Kate Winslet, with plenty of old Hollywood mannerisms, is unsurprisingly terrific at fully grasping both Ginny’s yearning for a better life she thinks she deserves and her vulnerability in the hands of desperation. Though despite Winslet’s grand efforts that tangentially brings to mind her portrayal of Sarah Pierce in Todd Field’s Little Children (a stronger, richer female character), she can’t save Ginny from becoming yet another outdated female trope, victimized by poor life decisions, begging to be rescued by a young man who thinks “39 is a very hot age for women” and genuinely believes he can detect a female’s susceptibility just by watching her body language. Allen’s treatment of Carolina is sadly similarly one-note: naïve, confused and for someone threatened by the possibility of murder, too comfortable spelling out her delicate situation to strangers. Perhaps more unforgivable than the simplistic sketching of the characters is the overall, gradually distancing low stakes throughout Wonder Wheel: no danger or emotion quite takes off or becomes something of substance. Even the finale feels like a big shrug.

But again, Wonder Wheel is pretty to look at. The small Coney Island apartment of Humpty and Ginny, with an impossibly poor location on the boardwalk in the midst of all the amusement park action, is conceived and compartmentalized to claustrophobic effect. Suzy Benzinger’s costumes, especially for Ginny who goes from helpless to destructive complement the characters’ journeys. But the real hero here is the legendary cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, whose lens enriches every frame of Allen’s ultimately superficial world of tired nostalgia.

Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.