Ups and Downs with Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel

Amid the new controversy surrounding the personal life of 81-year-old Woody Allen comes the release of the director’s 48th feature film Wonder Wheel, as if carefully navigated by a Hollywood publicist. Despite the common knowledge that even bad publicity is in many ways good, many critics continue to line up and down Riegelmann Boardwalk frothing to take a bite out of Allen’s new picture. Set against a nostalgic 1950’s Coney Island backdrop, Allen’s always present attention to aesthetic is as prevalent of a character in the film as those portrayed by Kate Winslet, Jim Belushi, Juno Temple and Justin Timberlake.

The film begins with aspiring poet and playwright Mickey (Timberlake) narrating from his position at bay seven as a lifeguard on the beach at Coney Island. Explaining that his mythologizing would come in the form of metaphors (plural), Mickey is expeditive with his warning that his penchant for romance often leads his stories to tragedy. Mickey begins to weave his tale about Ginny (Winslet), the wife of a carousel operator who finds renewed vigour in life after falling in love with the handsome NYC drama student and lifeguard. Ginny is first seen by Mickey looking “vulnerable” while walking along the shoreline before a potential storm. Mickey chivalrously and ironically “protects” Ginny from the soon to arrive lightning by holding a large metal framed beach umbrella over the head of the Ruby’s Clam House server.

Ginny carries an emotional burden with having cheated on her first husband and is drawn fellow lost soul Humpty (played exquisitely by Belushi) in what is a relationship of convenience, over love. Upon the surprise return of Humpty’s estranged 27-year-old daughter Carolina (Temple) the family’s already cozy living quarters become increasingly cozier. In addition to raising Ginny’s pyromaniacal 10-year-old son Richie and despite some feigned resistance Humpty welcomes his marked (by organized crime) daughter to stay with the family in their apartment inside the Wonder Wheel at Coney Island.

The film’s soundtrack is a carousel of its own, strategically alternating between three main song selections. “Kiss of Fire” is a 1952 adaptation (from the Argentinian tango, “El Choclo”) by Georgia Gibbs often heard while observing Richie, peer into an office or pier fire instigated by the redhead. Vocal Hall of Fame inductees (1998) The Mills Brothers chip in with “Coney Island Washboard”, a song that coincides with many of the picture’s early transitions until it gradually gives way to Vaughn Monroe’s 1949 cover of “Red Roses for a Blue Lady” for the last third of the film.

Allen is facing professional condemnation for over-saturating the colour in Wonder Wheel by abruptly introducing various hues of orange and tangerine throughout the film. The red hair of Ginny and Richie appear almost cartoon-like in a scene where mother catches refuge seeking son at the local cineplex. Discussions will ensue over Allen’s overtly misogynistic treatment and language towards his female characters. However, the actors in Wonder Wheel bring performances capable of lining any film silver, the usually sufficient if not remarkable Timberlake being the single capricious performance in the picture.

With Winslet garnering much of the pre-Oscar buzz for her emotional yet predictable role in Wonder Wheel, it is Belushi’s under-heralded pursuance of the lunkish and needy brute Humpty who should be earning more acclaim. After impressing viewers in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return, Belushi takes on a John Goodman-like charm as the rough around the edges abusive when drunk 1950’s New York mechanic stereotype, Humpty.   

With a shroud of controversy surrounding the film’s famous director, a highly capable cast of mostly solid performances, and a bleak story arch, Wonder Wheel has more than enough spokes for any filmgoer to get caught up in and taken for a ride. Despite warning us of his love of Eugene O’Neill’s plays and “the human condition, the tragic human condition, how we have to lie to ourselves in order to live”, Mickey narrates an intriguing film into a tragically predictable place. Allen once again fails to develop a single character within the play out of the film itself, which speaks to how bleak of an outlook the director has to the notion that a person can change. Starting the film off with a beach umbrella protruding out of the narrator’s head as well as having his actors speak dialogue in softer focus than a wooden pillar slightly closer to his (oft) Steadicam, Allen purposely breaks rudimentary cinematography rules in a  quest for an aesthetic that never feels entirely sure of itself.

In the end, Winslet, Belushi and Temple carry the latest Allen film fueled by potential and continuously on the verge of an identity.