Wonder Wheel (2017)

  • Time: 101 min
  • Genre: Drama
  • Director: Woody Allen
  • Cast: James Belushi, Juno Temple, Justin Timberlake, Kate Winslet


On Coney Island in the 1950s, a lifeguard tells the story of a middle-aged carousel operator and his beleaguered wife.


  • In Woody Allen’s latest cinematic memory palace, Wonder Wheel, a lifeguard by summer, aspiring playwright by fall named Mickey Rubin (Justin Timberlake) recounts his summer affair with Ginny Rannell (Kate Winslet), a never-was actress resigned to an unhappy marriage to the abusive and alcoholic Humpty (Jim Belushi). Neither her marital status nor her age – she’s approaching 40, he’s in his early twenties – are deterrents for Mickey, who acknowledges that she is not the first married woman that he’s found beautiful. If anything, the inherent drama in their situation, combined with her aura of desperation and vulnerability, fuel his attraction.

    It’s fairly clear that things won’t end well, since Ginny is more emotionally invested in their relationship than Mickey is. Plus there’s the unexpected arrival of Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty’s daughter from his first marriage, who is on the run from the mob after her husband gets into some trouble with them. Her drama and comparative worldliness to Ginny becomes more of an aphrodisiac to Mickey, whose fading interest becomes yet another burden for Ginny to bear. If Ginny’s first husband taught her what love was and Humpty taught her what it was not, then Mickey is a chance for her to give the love she still has within her to someone she wants to give it to. Yet, even she has some sense that she is destined to eternal misery as she notes, “I brought my troubles on myself.”

    Wonder Wheel, set in the Coney Island of the Fifties, is Allen’s ode to playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Clifford Odets. One can see shades of Miller’s A View from the Bridge in Humpty’s love for Carolina, whom he believes too fine to be a waitress like Ginny. Humpty and Ginny themselves seem variations of Williams’ Stanley and Stella Kowalski, though certainly Ginny bears more of Blanche DuBois’ DNA in her character much like Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine did in Blue Jasmine, which is a less whimsical though equally dark and fatalistic effort. In fact, Ginny and Jasmine could be soul sisters for both Wonder Wheel and Blue Jasmine are very much about women unravelling and armouring themselves against their realities with increasingly calcifying illusions.

    That Ginny was a one-time stage actress aids her in dealing with her life. She tells Mickey that she’s only playing the part of a waitress, she rehearses how she’ll reveal that she’s a married woman to Mickey before they meet under the boardwalk, she even notes that Mickey would have “ruined her grand finale” if she had gone through with her plan to drown herself. Her final encounter with Mickey finds her recalling Norma Desmond at the end of Sunset Boulevard, his presence merely a prop for her inexorably deluded monologue.

    Winslet is nothing less than stunning here, perhaps turning in her most complex and layered performance as she tracks Ginny’s deterioration. Initially, her Ginny feels too broad and overly mannered, but then Winslet suddenly exposes the raw nerves and one is swept up in the vortex of emotions that she conjures. One wishes for more of Temple, not only because she does very fine work here but also since she is the only one who comes close to matching Winslet’s level. Neither Belushi and Timberlake both look the part, but they’re less successful in preventing their characters from becoming caricatures.

    Wonder Wheel is, despite its content, not a decidedly weighty concoction. Some scenes feel extraneous and by-the-numbers, the characters on paper feel thinly written, and yet… Wonder Wheel is ravishing to look at. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and production designer Santo Loquasto prove once again that their craftsmanship is second to none. One could watch Carolina walk through the beautifully recreated Coney Island fairground as Storaro’s camera tracks her all the live long day. The actors are lovingly bathed in Storaro’s colour scheme of moonlight blues, dreamy red hues, and honeyed yellows. There are compositions that are so heart-stopping that one might willingly ignore the film’s more glaring shortcomings.

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  • Having visited Tennessee Williams territory in Blue Jasmine now Woody Allen takes on Eugene O’Neill, with a harsh vision of self-destructive characters doomed by fate and their own tragic flaw. Both tragedies show Allen at the peak of his craft, restoring his title of America’s most significant film director.
    The titular Wonder Wheel is the gigantic, dramatically lit Ferris wheel that we don’t see until the end. The characters are rather emblematized by the earthbound merry go round, as they live locked in their sordid painful lives, unable to see any larger hopes. Humpty fixes and runs the merry go round, a losing proposition like his parenthood, marriage, current affair and battle with alcoholism. His name stamps him as the fallen, even beyond the wagon.
    This Coney Island is a shrinking, garish fantasy that distracts its denizens from their tragic destiny. Ginny’s arsonist son has no specific explanation but seems a tragic version of little Ally Singer, living under the Coney Island roller coaster and worrying about the end of the universe, over his bowl of quivering tomato soup. Without the knowledge and philosophy the kid is merely destructive. He’s the innocent as nihilist.
    Allen pitches this drama as a piece of theatre rather than as life or naturalistic cinema. The garish brightness of the Coney Island exteriors, the painstakingly recreated atmosphere of the signs and period songs, the turgid shadows and gloom of the interiors, and the eruptive emotions especially of Ginny and Humpty all evoke the artificial heightening of theatre.
    Jim Belushi plays the bathetic Humpty as an even coarser Stanley Kowalski. Ginny retreats to Blanche when, broken, her hopes dashed, she retreats to the fantasy of her old white gown. Both characters live theatrically, Humpty in the force of his rage and Ginny in pretending she is only playing the role of a waitress, not really being one. The real her is something else, a wispy memory of an alternative life she might have lived. Like Blanche, she bears the guilt of having driven a devoted lover to suicide.
    In a brilliant piece of meta theatrical casting, the two mafiosi on Carolina’s trail are prominent survivors of Tony Soprano’s crew, Steve Schirripa and Tony Sorico, very much in character.
    Hence the main character, Mickey, is an aspiring playwright who speaks to us in confidential asides. He is also a lifeguard, whose elevated perspective gives him an advantage over the merry go round lot but falls short of the Wonder Wheel’s sweeping perspective.
    He may know his O’Neill but he doesn’t know life or how to navigate it responsibly. He leaves Ginny with unrealistic hopes he might save her, then delays his intended dismissal of her. Immediately upon resolving to keep her instead of young Carolina, he asks the latter out for her fatal pizza date. When he informs Carolina of his affair with her stepmother, his assumption of purity and honesty pales beside its unintended cruelty and her doom. His sending her off to walk home alone is as responsible for her demise as Ginny’s decision not to warn her.
    Humpty, Carolina and Ginny suffer the consequences of their earlier decisions. Mickey has the book larnin’ but lacks the grit of their experience. The two women win him by their hard won experience and pain, but his writerly detachment leaves him hollow.
    This film is so rich and challenging that it’s silly to hang Allen’s old scandal on it, basing that narrow reading on the line “The heart has its own hieroglyph”—loosely, Allen’s early defence of his initially problematic relationship with his current wife. This modern exercise.of the classical tragic vision is a deliberate attempt to confront man’s largest predicament, far beyond our mundane news scandals. Early Allen would have been eviscerating Trump in a gleeful high dudgeon. Here Allen follows the great tragic writers into a far more sweeping examination of how we humanly fail in our lives.

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