Wonder Wheel

wonder-wheel-rev Wonder Wheel  (2017)    Amazon/Drama    RT: 101 minutes    Rated PG-13 (thematic content, some sexuality, language)    Director: Woody Allen    Screenplay: Woody Allen    Cinematography: Vittorio Storaro    Release date: December 8, 2017 (Philadelphia, PA)    Cast: Jim Belushi, Juno Temple, Justin Timberlake, Kate Winslet, Jack Gore, Stephen R. Schirripa, Tony Sirico, Max Casella, Debi Mazar, David Krumholtz.

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 Woody Allen has always had an eye for period detail, especially when it comes to the New York of his youth. His latest, the melodrama Wonder Wheel, is no exception. It’s set in Coney Island in the early 50s. If you go by the vintage songs on the soundtrack, the year is probably 1952. Allen excels at creating a palpable sense of time and place. The crowded beaches. The bustling boardwalks with the rides and games. Guys trying to impress their gals by winning them a stuffed animal by hitting the most ducks at a shooting gallery. You can even smell the fried clams from the boardwalk eatery where two of the central characters work. Then there’s the famous Wonder Wheel spinning around and around in place going nowhere. It’s obviously symbolic of the lives led by the characters in Wonder Wheel, a truly heinous effort that only proves Allen should abandon his goal of making a movie every year.

 wonder wheelWonder Wheel plays like a bad Tennessee Williams play with its unappealing characters and weak storyline. It mainly deals with Ginny (Winslet, Titanic), a once-promising actress stuck in an unhappy marriage to Humpty (Belushi, Red Heat), an oafish, middle-aged carousel operator. When she’s not trying to keep him from drinking, she’s dealing with her pyromaniac 10-year-old son Richie (Gore, Billions) from her first marriage that ended when she cheated. She suffers from constant migraines due to family-related stress and living in the midst of all the Coney Island noise. Calling her domestic situation bleak is an understatement. The only good thing in her life is her adulterous affair with the much-younger Mickey (Timberlake, The Social Network), a lifeguard who wants to be a playwright. He narrates the movie. He tells us straight up that he has a flair for melodrama and symbolism. No kidding.

 Into the fray comes Carolina (Temple, Killer Joe), Humpty’s estranged daughter from his first marriage. They stopped talking when she married a Brooklyn gangster against his wishes. Now she’s on the run from her husband after talking to the police about his business. She’s a “marked woman” in need of a place to hide. After an initially hostile reception, Humpty forgives her and invites her to stay until she gets her act together. Ginny gets her a job waiting tables and Humpty pays her way though night school. At some point, she meets Mickey who becomes smitten with her. The feeling is mutual. Carolina has no idea Ginny’s having an affair with him when she asks for advice on how she should proceed with him. Hell hath no fury as a woman scorned. Ginny’s jealousy leads to madness and an action that affects the lives of many.

 Allen generally makes two kinds of movies: (1) clever comedies (e.g. Midnight in Paris, The Purple Rose of Cairo) and (2) serious introspections of the human condition (e.g. Interiors, Match Point). Occasionally, he successfully combines the two- e.g. 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. Lately, the quality of his work has diminished. There’s little to nothing in the way of creativity. He recycles themes and motifs from previous works. It’s a chore sitting through his movies anymore.

 This movie is horribly overacted by Winslet and Belushi. He appears to be simultaneously channeling Marlon Brando and Jackie Gleason. Her performance is shrill. Ginny is the most unappealing character she’s ever played. She’s loud, disagreeable and unpleasant. Humpty is an unrefined boor with a bad temper and an unnatural attachment/attraction to his grown daughter. Is this art imitating life? Timberlake (as Allen’s surrogate presumably) isn’t too horrible but his Mickey feels more like a character from a Neil Simon play than a Woody Allen movie. Temple comes off best as the guileless girl who doesn’t seem to know what’s really going on around her. She assumes that Ginny is always angry because she doesn’t help out enough around the house. You can’t really dislike somebody as clueless as Carolina.

 One of the things that bugs me most about Wonder Wheel is the handling of the young son. At times, it seems like Allen wants to play the boy’s fire-setting for laughs. The truth is that it’s actually quite disturbing. He is one seriously messed-up little guy. Mom is too preoccupied with her own unhappiness to recognize the truth about her boy. This aspect of the story is poorly handled.  

 The one and only strong point of Wonder Wheel is Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography. The movie looks great even if it has an overcast look to it. There seems to be a dark pallor hanging over the whole project. This movie is dour, depressing and turgid. It’s so bad, it feels like it runs longer than its 101 minutes. I checked my watch more than usual. It leaves a very sour aftertaste. Wonder Wheel is easily one of Allen’s worst. It’s definitely in the bottom five. My advice to the 82-year-old filmmaker is simply this; take a break until you have something truly original and clever then retire on a high note. Your fans hope you still have it in you. Just one more, that’s not too much to ask, is it?

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