Directed by: Woody Allen
Premise: Set in 1950s Coney Island, a woman (Juno Temple) on the run from her mobster husband reunites with her estranged father (Jim Belushi) and his wife (Kate Winslet) who is having an affair with a lifeguard (Justin Timberlake).
What Works: Wonder Wheel has some terrific cinematography and production value. The movie takes place on Coney Island in the summertime during the post-war years and it has a style that is unique and colorful. The movie doesn’t look necessarily real but rather takes on the style of paintings of mid-twentieth century American life. The film’s impressive use of color goes beyond the set design and into the lighting. Much of the movie takes place on and around Coney Island’s amusement park attractions and the lights of the setting are used to color the scene. There are some ambitious and perfectly timed lighting cues reminiscent of the way light is used on the stage and it colors the experiences of the characters and the emotional turmoil of their lives. Wonder Wheel features a mostly solid cast. Woody Allen has created many great female characters over the years and Kate Winslet is a good match with her role in this film. This disillusioned wife craves more than what life has given her and she begins an affair with a younger man. Winslet plays the part well and conveys the yearning and the heartbreak of her character. She’s paired with Jim Belushi as her husband. He is an alcoholic but he’s written and played in a way that makes him more than a type. When his estranged daughter returns home, Belushi’s character is initially harsh but he gradually softens. The moments between Jim Belushi and Juno Temple’s characters are convincing and they have an authentic father-daughter rapport.
What Doesn’t: The weakest element of Wonder Wheel is most anything involving the lifeguard and narrator played by Justin Timberlake. Timberlake is a good actor but he’s not good in Wonder Wheel. Part of the problem is the material he’s given to work with. Like a lot of Woody Allen films, Wonder Wheel includes a character who speaks directly into the camera and explains the plot. The narration is pretentious, it doesn’t add anything to the movie, and it frequently interrupts the momentum of the story. Timberlake strains to be a witty Woody Allen-type but he comes across annoying. The movie grinds to a halt whenever he is on screen. Wonder Wheel also suffers from a story that isn’t very surprising. The movie cobbles together different elements that have been seen before in other dramatic and romantic movies and everything in Wonder Wheel fits together in a way that is too tidy. There is no chaos or messiness or unpredictability. As a result, Wonder Wheel feels flat and artificial.
Bottom Line: Wonder Wheel has good things going for it, especially the performance by Kate Winslet, but the movie is never very involving. It is derailed by Woody Allen’s self-indulgence and a story that isn’t very surprising.
Episode: #679 (December 24, 2017)