It arrives like an annual event. Once a year, a new Woody Allen directed film emerges, one where the production was shot under a cloud of secrecy, where the actors talk in terms of having received the script in the mail but with only their pages in the envelope, and little is publicly discussed until the project is fully formed. Expectations always run high. It is, after all, another Woody Allen movie.
Depending on personal taste and preferences, some are great. Hannah and Her Sisters. A wonderful film. So, too, was Mighty Aphrodite. Crimes and Misdemeanors, another. Then there are the disappointments. Shadows and Fog, for instance. September, definitely. And even though it’s developed a popularity throughout the years, Zelig never quite got off the ground.
And then there’s everything in between; projects that began with promise, then at their conclusion left you with a feeling of, well, nothing particularly special. Look at the resume. You can see for yourself.
The drama Wonder Wheel has a new category. It’s better than that middling level that plagues the majority, but it can’t quite achieve the greatness you’re hoping for, even if there are moments when you feel it’s about to get there. It’s an almost, but not quite.
Beginning as all Woody Allen films do, with credits in white letters against a black background, backed musically by a long forgotten classic recording (here it’s an upbeat, jaunty version of Coney Island Washboard with the gentle, harmonic voices of The Mills Brothers) Wonder Wheel opens with a surprisingly spectacular shot of a crowded beach. It’s Coney Island sometime in the fifties, a place of cheap thrills and great hot dogs. “Once a luminous jewel,” our narrator, Justin Timberlake, tells us, “But relentlessly seedier as the tides roll in and out.”
Timberlake plays Mickey, a lifeguard on Bay 7. He dreams of being a writer of truly great plays, hoping to impress everyone one day by writing a profound masterpiece, but he’s not quite there. His summer job pays the bills before the fall when he’ll return to college and study for his Masters in European drama. He relishes melodrama and narrates the events of Wonder Wheel as though he’s formulating a script, relating what happened during this one particular summer in the fifties by the famous amusement park. Thus, when Juno Temple arrives looking lost and a little unsure of her surroundings by the huge Ferris wheel, Mickey announces, as if giving direction, “Enter Carolina.”
Carolina is on the run. She married a mobster who got rich by cementing the feet of other guys, but now she’s left him, fearing for her life, aware that she’s a marked woman, one who’s in desperate need of a place to hide before her husband’s goons get to her. “I know where the bodies are buried,” she will later state. So she turns to Coney Island because that’s where her father lives and works, and he’s all she’s got.
Her father is Humpty (Jim Belushi), a carousel operator who lives with his waitress wife, Ginny (Kate Winslet) in an apartment above the park’s shooting gallery. It used to house a freak show, but now it’s a place to live where the view through the window is the ever revolving wonder wheel of the film’s title. It’s all he can afford. Humpty is livid to see his daughter. “I told you never to set foot in my home again,” he tells her, but Carolina has nowhere else to hide. “I didn’t want to come here, but I don’t have a choice.”
The film may begin with Carolina, but Wonder Wheel is really Ginny’s story. Once an actress whose career never flourished, Ginny now works serving clams to summer visitors. With migraines and an aversion to the constant noise of her surroundings, she is falling apart. Ginny is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. “Why does he hit you?” asks her son from her first marriage, Richie (Jack Gore), referring to his step-dad. “When he gets drunk he hits everybody,” Ginny replies.
Ginny is having an affair with Mickey the lifeguard, and it’s the one thing in her life that seems to be working. But when Humpty’s daughter-on-the-run turns up and things between Carolina and the lifeguard develop, Ginny may soon unravel.
With cinematography by Vittorio Storaro, Wonder Wheel is a handsome looking production, rich with vibrant colors decorating virtually every frame. The rides of Coney island appear freshly painted and candy colored, the skies above, a deep blue, and at night, neon reds bathe Ginny and Humpty’s bedroom until the park finally closes for the night. Director Allen uses this cinematic palette not only for decoration but to help indicate moods and emotions.
At night, under the boardwalk, when Ginny tells Mickey what love was like with her first husband, her face and hair are coated in the reds and yellows reflected from the lighted bulbs of the amusement park rides. But when she talks of meeting Humpty where she learned what love is not, the colors drain to a natural look, until Mickey tells her, “You have so much to give and no one to give it to,” then kisses her. Those golden-hued, reflective colors slowly, temporarily return.
And there are other visual, directorial flourishes Allen uses to sign-post a moment. When Carolina first arrives, hoping for a new future, it’s with the Wonder Wheel in all its promising glory behind her. Later, when she and Ginny are having a confessional and Ginny learns that the young woman has been with her lifeguard, they walk by a side-show in the park called Spill The Milk. And when two gangsters arrive in search of their mob boss’s runaway wife, the hoods park their car by the Cyclone as if indicating the potential storm they may soon unleash if and when they find her.
All four leads are exceptionally well cast, but they’re ultimately let down by a script that never quite takes off. Allen directs conversations – here characters talk and talk as if reenacting scenes direct from a play – but he doesn’t direct action. He tells too much without showing. As a result, the film’s rhythm never reaches top gear; it’s stuck in third. Ultimately, what is visually an attractive looking production with four good performances and a wonderful sense of period is stuck in a hundred minutes of mediocre story telling.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 101 Minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)