It’s often difficult to tell with Woody Allen where the satire ends and the pretension begins. The narrator of Wonder Wheel is a would-be writer named Mickey (Justin Timberlake), who toots his own horn often enough while relating the sad tale of the mess he made of the life of a married woman named Ginny (Kate Winslet). It’s easy to poke fun at Mickey’s pronouncements on Eugene O’Neill and Shakespeare, though after a while you begin to wonder if it isn’t the director’s own need for us to understand the allusions he’s making in his own script, which isn’t bad as far as romantic potboilers go, but you can only cut Allen so much slack when it comes to affairs of the heart.
Mickey makes a living as a lifeguard at Coney Island, where Ginny lives with her ne’er-do-well, alcoholic, borderline violent husband, Humpty (Jim Belushi), who runs the merry-go-round. It’s the 1950s, and the famous amusement park is on the skids, so Ginny works as a waitress to make ends meet. Her affair with Mickey is aspirational. At one time a budding actress, Ginny falls for Mickey’s lines about a life of the mind that will include her and her talents, but nothing much comes of it. And then Humpty’s daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), from a previous relationship, shows up. She’s running from her mobster ex-husband and Humpty seems to feel responsible for her, though Ginny, obviously, doesn’t. It’s not exactly O’Neill, more like bargain basement Clifford Odets, but it turns out to be Allen’s sturdiest plot in a long time, and for a while the gears move with a steady rhythm that draws the viewer in. Even the grace notes, like Humpty’s love of fishing, which Ginny hates, add credibility to the story and the characterizations.
Unfortunately, once Carolina becomes the focus of the subsequent intrigue, the plot becomes predictable. You know feckless Mickey is going to fall for her and that Ginny will find out and all sorts of hysterical words will be exchanged, turning the dynamics from that of Odets to that of Tennessee Williams. As intuitive as she usually is on screen, Winslet becomes almost unbearable to watch as Ginny falls victim to a series of migraines, which, in turn, knock Humpty off the wagon. The movie turns maudlin and depressing, which is especially a shame since Allen does some of his most creative visual work, perhaps invigorated by memories of the locations, where he grew up. The satiny, golden look of the film would inspire nostalgia in anyone, but there’s nothing to reinforce the longing. The miserable lives on display have nothing inspiring about them. It’s as if the story is all in Mickey’s mind, a play he’s working on. We should have known, because right from the start you could tell the guy’s a chump.
Now playing in Tokyo at Marunouchi Picadilly (03-3201-2881), Shinjuku Picadilly (03-5367-1144).
Wonder Wheel home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2017 Gravier Productions Inc.