Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Coney Island in the 1950’s was a bustling , beachside vacation spot and a smashing success. Just look at all the colorful, striped beach umbrellas that populate the coastline in writer-director Woody Allen’s WONDER WHEEL. The boardwalk was full of patrons creating a stir – a noise only a happy crowd can make. It’s now a shadow of what it once was. And the same can be said of the neurotic auteur. This is the connection that becomes impossible to dodge as the film’s run time ticks away. With no drive, no pressing urgency, and no character to really dig into, it’s abundantly clear we’ve reached the bottom of Allen’s drawer of ideas (yes, this is a real thing).
Carolina (Juno Temple, whose performance is one of the sole highlights in this snoozefest) is on the run from her mobster hubby after informing on him and his crew. Her only source of safety is her estranged father Humpty (Jim Belushi) and his second wife Ginny’s (Kate Winslet) cramped apartment on Coney Island. Her arrival couldn’t have come at a worse time. Humpty’s “on the wagon” and Ginny’s just taken a lover, lifeguard/ wannabe playwright Mickey (Justin Timberlake). He’s attracted to drama and Ginny, the shadow of the actress she once was, is gonna give it to him. The trouble begins when Carolina falls for Mickey and, unbeknownst to her, complicates her desperate stepmother’s love affair.
Everyone here is a caricature, never approaching anything resembling depth or dimension. Belushi stars as the wife-beater-wearing oily bohunk! Temple stars as the sweet-hearted mobster moll! Timberlake stars as the naive dreamboat! Had the material been stronger, this would’ve been Winslet’s BLUE JASMINE. Instead, it’s all fever-pitch psychosis – a whistling tea-kettle with the boiling water evaporated. It’s hard to buy she would ever settle for Humpty, even out of extreme anxiety. Sadly, not even the side story involving Ginny’s truant, pyromaniac son Richie (Jack Gore) helps to add levity as it’s flat-out not funny.
Suzy Benzinger’s costume design and Vittorio Storaro’s heavily saturated cinematography do the heavy lifting. Ginny clings to her stage wardrobe and jewels, cloaking herself in vestiges of her former identity. Drama is summoned through lighting changes during pivotal conversations between Ginny, Mickey and Carolina. The effused warm glow radiates, but also stands in juxtaposition to these characters’ feelings. The soft focus lenses amp up the romance of the melodrama. However, all of this is artifice dressing up a lackluster narrative engine. There’s a hollow, cavernous quality to the claustrophobia audiences are supposed to experience. Maybe Allen should have turned up the heat and drenched his actors in sweat, but again, that would be false pretenses.
WONDER WHEEL represents the worst in the marital discord cinematic sub-genre that I love. I would say this feels more like a play, but that would give too much credence to the boring shenanigans. There’s something to the idea of a bunch of sad sacks living in the shadow of a shining symbol of innovation, amusement and fun. It’s just too bad Allen can’t express it properly.
WONDER WHEEL opens in limited release on December 1.