‘Wonder Wheel’ Review: Woody Allen’s Gorgeous, Stale Melodrama
During a climactic moment in Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel, which closed the New York Film Festival last week, Kate Winslet’s Ginny begins to have a meltdown. The exasperated waitress with smeared lipstick stomps about her apartment woe-is-me-ing in an operatic monologue. Just before Ginny pulls a kitchen knife on her lover, she shouts, “Oh god! Spare me the bad drama!” If only Allen could hear me begging him to do the same.
The Tennessee Williams-style histrionics of Wonder Wheel feel oddly familiar. Allen already reimagined the playwright’s A Streetcar Named Desire in Blue Jasmine, but clearly he hasn’t tired of his preoccupation with emotionally unstable leading women. Like Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine, Winslet’s Ginny is selfish and neurotic, nostalgic for the past and haunted by it at the same time. Wonder Wheel is Blue Jasmine 2.0, only not nearly as sharp or well-acted.
Set in 1950s Coney Island, the film is told from the writerly perspective of our narrator, Mickey Rubin (a cloying Justin Timberlake). Mickey is a lifeguard and aspiring playwright who, in all seriousness, says he’s “obsessed with the tragic human condition” and that his weakness is he’s “too romantic of a character.” Ginny and Mickey meet on the beach and begin a secret summer affair. He becomes her escape from her abusive marriage, but for him, Ginny is an artistic muse, an older married woman he can boast (to us, the audience) about finding attractive.
While watching Wonder Wheel I found myself counting how many times Mickey fawns over Ginny’s appearance in relation to her age, then quickly lost count – it’s as if the film wants us to congratulate him for being gracious enough to give a poor woman who looks like Winslet a shot. What a guy! Wonder Wheel is weirdly fixated on women’s ages. At one point Ginny berates her husband, Humpty (Jim Belushi), for treating his daughter (Juno Temple) “more like his girlfriend.” It’s an icky line that’s hard to dismiss, given the sometimes sordid biographical details of Woody Allen’s private life.
After sneaking off in the evenings with her lifeguard beau, Ginny returns to home – “I’m just playing a role, you know,” she assures Mickey and herself, delusional that her real life is one of the characters from her past as an actress. Her husband is a well-meaning alcoholic, and she’s forced to hide liquor from him so he won’t hit her. Her troublemaker son from a previous marriage, Richie (Jack Gore), has a penchant for lighting fires, a running gag that soon turns tired. And Humpty’s estranged daughter, Carolina (Temple), arrives unexpectedly and becomes Ginny’s competition. After fleeing from her mobster husband, Carolina hides out in the family’s apartment to evade the men looking to kill her. From there, Wonder Wheel heads exactly where you expect it to, following the simplistic narrative of “young hot guy dates older woman until younger and hotter woman comes along.”
Winslet may get some awards consideration for her performance here; sadly she will not deserve it. She does the best she can with the material; she’s good when Ginny’s alone on screen and unravelling silently. But all of that is overshadowed by her many theatrical outbursts stuffed with laughable, obvious dialogue. (“I’ve become consumed with jealousy!” she says after acting noticeably jealous for a good portion of the movie.) During her mental breakdown, Ginny accuses Mickey of being melodramatic, while she’s the one who parades around, dolled-up with extravagant jewelry and makeup like a bad Norma Desmond imitation. Ginny is less of the commanding force the film thinks she is, and more of a caricature of a hysterical woman.
Though Wonder Wheel is a period piece meant to echo the rhythms of a Williams or Eugene O’Neill production, Allen’s dialogue feels phony. Maybe that’s part of the point; if Wonder Wheel ended with the reveal that everything we’d just watched was the first draft of a bad play by Timberlake’s lifeguard, perhaps you could call it a success. Allen, who’s been churning out disappointments over the past several years, has more in common with his young male lead than he may like to admit.
Instead, it’s the craftspeople behind the scenes who are the real stars of Wonder Wheel. This movie is astoundingly gorgeous, and every scene makes you long to travel back in time to the golden sunsets and boisterous ambiance of 1950s Coney Island. Production designer Santo Loquasto makes a meal out of the time period, from the decorative boardwalk to Ginny’s cramped apartment, converted from an old freak show near the titular ferris wheel. Cinematographer Vittorio Storraro, who also turned the regrettable Café Society into a visual gem, bathes the cast in the electric glow of carnival lights at night. He boosts the saturation so that every shot pops with radiant blues, yellows, and reds. From the film’s visual world to the details of Suzy Benzinger’s costume design, Wonder Wheel is like an antique postcard come to life.
Like last year’s Café Society, Wonder Wheel is almost watchable, but so amused by old-fashioned gender and relationship dynamics that you’re left wondering why either needs to exist. That isn’t to say stories about bygone eras aren’t worth telling, but Allen’s latest work reeks of a nostalgia for a time when women were defined by how pretty or emotional they were. Wonder Wheel is another of Allen’s polished, stale pieces of recycling that’s been made to look new again.
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