Woody Allen has played with gangsters before, but recently he has not been particularly successful. In Café Society, the crooks intruded on the overall charm of the film; and in Wonder Wheel – the director’s latest work – his attraction to the noirish plays a more prominent role, but is still pushed to a glossy backdrop. One has to wonder whether the auteur was tapping out his script while binge-watching The Sopranos.
Set on the Coney Island boardwalk in the 50s, the feature sees estranged daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) return to her father Humpty (Jim Belushi) after years of being married to a gangster. Now, the mob are looking to kill her. This upsets Humpty’s wife Ginny (Kate Winslet) – the classic Allenesque bundle of nerves – who is also engaged in an affair with a younger, writerly lifeguard called Mickey (Justin Timberlake). But when her lover takes a flirtatious interest in Carolina, events are thrown into anxious disorder.
When Allen approaches a straight drama, the audience should always hold their breath. He can do it – sometimes well – but it feels like a more talented, funnier voice is being suppressed. There’s no moment for humour in Wonder Wheel, which proceeds much like The Purple Rose of Cairo in its display of a crumbling character dissatisfied with reality.
Ginny doesn’t have a fictional figure walking out of a cinema screen, but she does swim in the poetic fantasy of a relationship with Mickey. She’s disenchanted with her husband, her job as a waitress (she used to be an actor), and her son from a previous marriage (who is obsessed with setting things on fire). This reality/fantasy conflict is where the filmmaker shines most in his writing.
But there aren’t many surprises in the story, and consequently it joins a neurotic limbo of countless other unfulfilling Woody Allen movies. This is nearly forgotten because of the performance by Winslet, who is endlessly engaging as a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, showcasing her deeper strengths as an actor. Wonder Wheel’s weaknesses are also masked by Vittorio Storaro’s exceedingly stunning cinematography, which boasts rich and beautiful colours, moving with a visual rhythm tuned to the waves seen from the boardwalk. But the story isn’t alluring enough to deserve these shots, nor Winslet’s superior presence.
Wonder Wheel is released nationwide on 9th March 2018.
Watch the trailer for Wonder Wheel here: