In Wonder Wheel, Kate Winslet plays an embittered woman who is trapped in an unhappy place and continuously complains of migraines. By the final stages of the film, her plight is one with which it is increasingly easy to empathise.
Living among the attractions of Coney Island’s fairground, Ginny (Winslet) is an embittered soul, with an alcoholic for a husband called Humpty (Jim Belushi) and an arsonist kid (Jack Gore). As though this set up were not extraordinarily contrived enough already, the first impetus of the film comes with the arrival onto the scene of Carolina, the five-years-estranged daughter of Humpty, who is on the run from her mobster ex.
One could argue that the film’s expensive aesthetics are indicative that this artifice is intentional but it’d be a hard sell. Indeed, a clumsy disregard for grace plagues the direction, the script is devoid of subtlety and all captured in vibrant, abstracted colours that are at once beautiful and utterly confounding. Under the creative cinematographic eye of Vittorio Storaro, this is a picture of fabulously striking expressions that don’t quite disguise the fact that Allen has very little to say.
Whereas Blue Jasmine was inspired by A Streetcar Named Desire, Wonder Wheel is more pale imitation. Digging up overused tropes, early scenes feel stagey and channel Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill as much as Tennessee Williams – the great irony being that none of this is remotely realist. Allen’s characters are no more believable than his plot, whilst his actors range from the weakly miscast to Kate Winslet – who miraculously delivers a performance that is occasionally worth watching.
Worst placed here is Justin Timberlake as dopey lifeguard Micky Rubin, both a key player in the film and its fourth-wall-breaking narrator. Turning up for an affair with Ginny and a dalliance with Carolina, Rubin is a fickle and artistic soul – which here means that he’s ‘poetic by nature’ and reads philosophy – who must battle between head and heart.
Much has been made of Allen’s switching his younger-woman-older-man routine here but it’s something of nothing. Winslet’s ‘older woman’ spends the entire film in anguish whilst Timberlake’s ‘younger man’ has young and old swooning, in spite of his sheen of dull. Neither of them are to blame exactly, they just have nothing to work with here whatsoever. If Winslet can’t sell lines like: ‘I’ve become consumed with jealousy’, you can be sure Timberlake is stumped by: ‘my tragic flaw is I’m too romantic’.
Often a wonder to look at, Woody’s Wheel goes round in circles and takes its bored audience for a ride.