Directed by Woody Allen
Written by Woody Allen
Wonder Wheel looks amazing. This assessment will probably be at the forefront of any critical appraisal of Woody Allen’s latest, which tells the story of a love triangle unfolding against the garish but charming Coney Island boardwalk in 1950.
From the film’s first frame, a wide shot of the Coney Island beach, the screen is saturated with contrasting splashes of bright color; as action moves to the boardwalk, overwhelming ambient sounds sap attention from the protagonists and central plot of Wonder Wheel. Lighting in the film is unsubtle, striking even. Faces are soaked in fiery orange, red, and yellow — or alternatively, steely blue, as the titular ferris wheel turns, or emotions in a given scene flip. Yet as the film wears on, the ease with which the viewer’s eye is drawn from the flimsy storyline and one-note characters is both a blessing and an indictment of Wonder Wheel itself. At least there’s something here to look at.
Superficiality is a virtue in Wonder Wheel, which renders its cheesy boardwalk universe in truly arresting detail. Various attractions on the strip make up an unceasing cacophony that encroaches on Ginny (Kate Winslet) and Humpty (Jim Belushi), a husband and wife living in a cramped apartment above a carnival shooting game. Scenes with Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a handsome lifeguard and aspiring playwright who becomes involved with both Ginny and Carolina (Humpty’s daughter, played by Juno Temple), unfold within a sea of bright umbrellas and colorful swimsuits.
All of the noise and color collides to create an impressively realized diorama for Ginny and Humpty to inhabit, and for a while the set design and cinematography is enough to draw the viewer into Wonder Wheel. When Ginny, an ex-actress turned waitress at a fry joint, returns home from a shift to treat her ennui with a swig of whiskey, her desperation is amplified by the annoying noise and the oppressive lights that fill her apartment. And when Carolina, on the run from her mobbed-up ex husband, enters the picture after five years of estrangement from Humpty, the film momentarily resembles an investigative family melodrama.
That lasts only so long, however, before Ginny meets Mickey and Wonder Wheel devolves into the trivium of their midsummer fling, framed as a symptom of Ginny’s crippling existential desperation. The problem is, Wonder Wheel, with its expository dialogue and simplistic characters, fails to render Ginny’s deterioration as organically human. The sensation of watching an expertly rendered amateur play persists, even as she becomes increasingly harried, overwhelming Mickey with what the film expects us to understand as her “craziness.”
When Mickey unsurprisingly begins to favor Carolina, who is immediately taken with his free spirit and the fact that he looks like Justin Timberlake, Ginny’s unraveling becomes complete. Still, her unforgivable act in the third act fails at burrowing under our skin, mostly because the all of the film’s characters are difficult to empathize with — they are each one-note, and they all have a bad habit of reciting that note out loud.
At one point, a frantic Ginny exclaims “I’m overcome with jealousy,” which yes, we can tell. When they first meet, Mickey tells her that he could tell she was vulnerable because of her body language; and when we first meet Mickey, he outlines to the audience that the story they are about to see is “a larger than life melodrama full of strong characters and metaphors,” due largely to his status as an aspiring dramaturgist.
Winslet convinces us of Ginny’s desperation and obtuse entitlement, fully leaning into her character’s theatrical dialogue and tumultuous mood swings, especially in the one or two monologues that the actress gamely rescues from contrived theatricality. She is the only actor in Wonder Wheel able to rescue the dialogue from its commitment to the Theater 101 flourishes that Mickey outlines in his prologue. Even when it’s difficult to buy her fling with Mickey — the film sort of rushes into it, expecting us to be along for the ride — Winslet makes it easy to accept Ginny’s initial disillusionment, as well as her eventual descent into outright desperation when faced with the permanence of her unremarkable life.
For his part, Timberlake flounders as Mickey, although not for a lack of charisma. We understand why both Ginny and Carolina would take notice of the lifeguard; less apparent is why they would suffer through the pretentious literary references and his obtuse dedication to romanticism, which Timberlake appears awkward affecting. The actor’s appearance is too polished, and his public persona is too fixed to lend any nuance to Mickey in the lieu of dialogue that should ostensibly provide an assist. What’s left is a charming lifeguard who seems fluent in the art of Bullshit. Despite his supposed internal conflict (which he tells us about repeatedly, with approximated poetics), Mickey is mostly applying his dramatic eye to the mundane act of trading his girlfriend in for a newer model.
His amateurish introduction was worth a laugh in my screening, but signaled the truth about Wonder Wheel: the film is, in most ways, much more shallow and frivolous than its creator knows. A pervasive lightness gives the shiny surface an inescapable flimsiness.