Movie Review: Wonder Wheel
Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
by Jason Koenigsberg
Woody Allen is a very divisive figure among the general public. His personal life is one that has been scrutinized for decades and will all of the Harvey Weinstein hullaballoo dominated Hollywood, his stock is not very high. Despite all of Allen’s scandalous personal matters, he still manages to write and direct a movie a year and most movie buffs enjoy his consistent output. His newest film Wonder Wheel is a small step back for his already impressive filmography. Woody can be the lone exception to the industry to the phrase “they don’t make em like they used to”. Unfortunately they often made them better than Wonder Wheel.
The film opens up with his typical modest credit sequence with his signature Windsor font and a jazz song playing in the background. The first shot is an impressive one of a packed beach at Coney Island in the 1950’s. The costumes, colors, sets and attention to detail in this first scene are admirable. We then meet our main characters a lifeguard (Justin Timberlake), an older woman he is having an affair with (Kate Winslet), her recovering alcoholic husband (Jim Belushi), and his estranged daughter (Juno Temple). The daughter has just popped in their lives because she is fleeing her husband and his mafia friends who are chasing her since she spoke to the FBI. She gets a job working at a seafood restaurant on the beach where her stepmother works, meets the handsome lifeguard and a love triangle develops and trouble ensues. The plot is similar to The Graduate (1967) although the results are not nearly as exemplary.
The lighting and cinematography are without a doubt the finest elements of Wonder Wheel. The film tries to use a lot of nifty tricks that make it look as if it uses natural light. During a lot of long scenes of dialogue the characters are shows in a rainbow of colors reflecting the outside carnival atmosphere they live in. In one scene you might see red, blue, orange or green cast on their faces and then it may end up being lit normally once the actors move to a different mark or the illusion of the lights outside passes their window. This makes otherwise mundane arguments look distinctive and more interesting than they actually are. The last shot and the penultimate shot are two of the best moments in the movie.
The editing contains long takes and rely on the actors to carry each scene. Winslet plays a manic woman dealing with emotional heartbreak as she is torn between her younger lover and her simple but well meaning husband. Woody Allen has written this type of character before several times for Diane Keaton and more recently and somberly with Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine (2013) for which she took home a Best Actress Oscar. Winslet is good but continues her streak of being less impressive than she used to be and has moments of solemn passion and other moments where she is just going through the motions. Her accent is perfect and her character is unsympathetic but so are many of the characters in Woody Allen’s recent dramatic films. Juno Temple is also great at concealing her British accent and Jim Belushi has one of his biggest dramatic roles in years and does a solid job, reminiscent of John Goodman with his performance. The weakest link is Justin Timberlake, who has proven that he can act, but he never really disappears into the scene and the dialogue he is given just came across phony as he tried his hardest to sell himself as a WWII veteran in love with an older woman and her younger stepdaughter. The worst part was Woody’s decision to have Timberlake narrate the film and break the fourth wall talking directly to the camera. Obviously he never saw Southland Tales (2007) where Justin Timberlake provided that passion project turkey with some of the worst narration ever recorded for a motion picture.
In the end Wonder Wheel is only worth checking out for Woody’s most loyal fans. The film has a lot of long takes and the camera stays on an actors face as they deliver their lines and the audience can watch their emotions change. It was just hard to care about these characters more than the average Woody Allen film. His love for nostalgia and growing up listening to the radio is no full display here even though the story itself is one of his more dour efforts.
Instead of seeing Wonder Wheel check out Radio Days (1987) one of Woody Allen’s most overlooked films that coasts on its love for growing up in New York City during the 1940’s.