Woody Allen’s new film “Wonder Wheel” is one of his most visually gorgeous works during recent years. Filled with colorful period atmosphere right from its very first shot, the movie provides a number of beautiful visual moments, and its first-rate cinematography and production design surely deserve to get some praise, but, alas, these nice technical elements do not compensate much for several glaring deficiencies in the movie including lackadaisical storytelling and bland characterization.
The main background of the movie is Coney Island, New York City in the 1950s, and the story opens with the introduction of one of its main characters. Mickey Rubin (Justin Timberlake) is a young New York University graduate student majoring in drama, and, like many Woody Allen movie heroes, he has aspired to write something great in the future, but he is currently spending his summertime on the Coney Island beach while working as a lifeguard. Apparently bored by his uneventful worktime hour, he is eager to tell us what is going on around him lately, and the movie soon moves its focus from him to Ginny Rannell (Kate Winslet), a restaurant waitress who has lived in the Coney Island along with her second husband Humpty (Jim Belushi) and her young son Richie (Jack Gore).
As shown from her weary appearance, life has been quite tiring and frustrating for Ginny. No matter how much she works hard, things do not get better for her and her family at all, and she is constantly frustrated with many daily problems in her life. Their shabby residence, which is located in the amusement park on Coney Island and is right next to a big Ferris wheel named, yes, Wonder Wheel, does not provide much comfort as noises and lights frequently invade its interior, and there is not much affection left between her and her husband, who usually goes fishing when he is not working in the amusement park. In addition, her son, who was born from her previous marital relationship, has recently developed pyromaniac tendency, and she does not know what to do with him as he keeps making his fiery troubles.
And then there comes another matter to deal with. On one day, Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty’s estranged daughter who left him for marrying her mobster boyfriend, suddenly appears in front of Humpty and Ginny, and she desperately wants her father’s help because she has been running away from her husband and his henchmen. While he is initially not so happy to see his prodigal daughter again, Humpty eventually decides to protect her for a while, and Ginny goes along with that despite her reluctance.
As Carolina continues to stay in her father’s residence, Ginny becomes more annoyed and frustrated than before, but she gets some consolation from her ongoing secret affair with Mickey. As a woman who was once an aspiring actress, she surely enjoys spending time with this smart young man who knows a lot about plays and playwrights, and it often seems possible to her that he will be more committed to her someday in the future.
However, their relationship takes a downturn when Carolina accidentally comes across Ginny and Mickey. While she does not have any idea on what is going on between Ginny and Mickey, Carolina finds herself attracted to Mickey, and Mickey also feels something toward her even though he is still emotionally involved with Ginny. At one point, he asks for a sound advice from his friend, but he does not follow that advice because, well, he cannot help himself when he sees Carolina again, and Ginny is not so pleased about what is going on between him and Carolina.
What we get here is a typical melodramatic circumstance, and the movie often evokes the qualities of those old-fashioned melodrama movies based on the works of Tennessee Williams and William Inge but, unfortunately, Allen’s screenplay fails to keep us engaged in its story as frequently hampered by its trite narrative and mediocre characters. While the main characters of the movie are one-note caricatures we do not care much about, the story is mostly predictable and insipid on the whole, and the finale is seriously devoid of any dramatic punch despite the diligent efforts from Kate Winslet, who is surely trying hard here but only remains to be stuck with her colorless character in the end.
The other main performers in the movie also try to do as much as they can, but their results are mostly disappointing too. Maybe because of his contemporary aura, Justin Timberlake feels rather awkward in the period background surrounding him, and Jim Belushi is only demanded to look dour and miserable. In case of Juno Temple, she brings some sense of life to her performance, but then her performance is limited by her underdeveloped character, and that is another disappointment in the film.
At least, “Wonder Wheel” is not a total failure considering its competent technical aspects. The production design by Santo Loquasto is colorfully gorgeous, and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who previously worked in Allen’s previous film “Café Society” (2016), reminds us again that he is indeed one of the best cinematographers in our time. The movie, which was blasted by many critics when it was released in US in last December, is not as awful as I feared, but this is still a major disappointment, and I can only hope that his upcoming next movie is less dissatisfying than this.