Wonder Wheel review: Justin Timberlake and Kate Winslet lead the cast of Woody Allen’s 49th feature as director.
Wonder Wheel review by Orestes Adam.
The last year that Woody Allen did not release a single film was 1981 and even at 82 the auteur shows no signs of slowing down. With such a massive filmography under his belt it is inevitable that some releases will pale in comparison to his masterworks and his latest addition Wonder Wheel, starring Kate Winslet and Justin Timberlake, unfortunately offers one of the dullest entries into his expansive career. With such a competent cast and crew, including a second collaboration between Allen and legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, certain aspects of Wonder Wheel, when taken in isolation from the rest of the film, quite literally shine. However, it is the way that these elements come together, or rather don’t, that makes Woody Allen’s 49th feature a square wheel.
The film opens with Justin Timberlake giving the audience his best Woody Allen impression. Timberlake plays Mickey, a lifeguard and aspiring playwright who is having a passionate affair with Ginny (Kate Winslet), a desperate and depressed middle-aged woman who struggles with keeping her abusive husband Humpty (Jim Belushi) sober and her young pyromaniac son behaved. Family dynamics as crooked as they are, things worsen when Carolina (Juno Temple) returns home to her father Humpty after years of estrangement, having ran away from her mob boss husband and become a marked woman as a result. The film attempts to request forgiveness from the audience in Mickey’s opening monologue, in which he stares into the camera and asks us to be wary of the fact that this is his story. Indeed, it does feel less like the work of a vastly experienced filmmaker and more like the first draft of a novice playwright such as Mickey himself. Given how theatrical and unnatural some of the performances are its hard not to perceive that as Allen’s intention. As aware of its own quality as it may be however, even if interpreted as the flawed work of the film’s narrator, it does not excuse the fact that this feels like a lifeless and rushed feature.
Justin Timberlake, while having proved himself as an actor in smaller roles, shows us that he is nowhere near ready to take on a role of such calibre or screen time. He acts as if he just watched Annie Hall and attempted to safely integrate himself within the auteur’s recognisable style and sensibilities. The result is easily identifiable as the work of an effortful pop star that in spite of his charisma simply does not have the stamina to be a leading man. Kate Winslet and Jim Belushi ironically deliver some of their best work as an unhappy couple. Belushi deftly portrays the complexities of his character; a menacing alcoholic with an endearing, albeit imperfect love for his family. Winslet in particular stuns in portraying a woman whose reality will never amount to the ambitions of her lifelong fantasies as an actress-turned-waitress, and the conniving manner in which she copes with those disappointments. If anything, Winslet and Belushi’s efforts are testament to just how much an actor’s performance is dependent on the elements through which it is presented, as Woody Allen’s characteristic long takes fail to adequately support the pacing that these actors demand.
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If there is one aspect of this film that succeeds, it is its portrayal of Coney Island. Storaro, who has given us some of cinema’s most memorable images in Apocalypse Now and The Conformist, makes Wonder Wheel a visual delight, capturing the blinding lights of neon signs and billboards to beautiful effect. Having said that, there are many instances in which Storaro’s images attempt to serve its story by bathing its characters in vibrant hues of light that wax and wane according to the emotions depicted onscreen which, as ambitious as it seems, feels overdone to the point that it distances its audience from its characters more than it infatuates. In spite of the visual splendor Storaro provides, his images are, like Winslet’s performance, inevitably hollow when taking into account the lack of quality every other facet of this film provides.
Ultimately, Wonder Wheel is a film that lacks any sort of focus that could connect its redeeming qualities to any satisfying extent. Its dialogue is repetitive, its characters are underdeveloped, and there are moments in which the film steers into the surreal only to lazily abandon this journey in favor of a more easily presentable resolution to a scene. It may satisfy Allen’s most ardent fans, but Wonder Wheel, for all intents and purposes, easily lies within the realms of one of his lesser contemporary efforts.
Wonder Wheel review by Orestes Adam, December 2017.
Wonder Wheel is out now in some territories, and in the UK from March 2018.