By Yong Shu Hoong
While Wonder Wheel bears a lot of writer-director Woody Allen’s finger-smudges – from the plain and simple opening credits, and the use of old songs on the soundtrack, to the featuring of big-name Hollywood actors – it’s unfortunately one of his middling works to be parked under those Woody Allen films that are more cursory than noteworthy.
Of course, as with all works by Allen, this 1950s period drama is still somewhat interesting – especially when you stick Kate Winslet firmly into the leading role of a desperately dissatisfied wife named Ginny, whose unkempt slob of a hubby, Humpty (Jim Belushi), is a carousel operator based in Coney Island, New York City.
As litmus test for Winslet’s acting skills (she had agreed to star in Allen’s 2005 film, Match Point, but pulled out at the eleventh hour), Ginny was written by Allen as a gradually unravelling actress-turns-waitress – she suffers from constant migraines brought on by the noises of Coney Island’s seaside amusement park where her apartment is located, while her lack of love for Humpty drives her to start a steamy affair with hunky, and younger, lifeguard Mickey (Justin Timberlake).
All this time, she has to deal with problems involving her young son from her previous marriage who possesses an unhealthy obsession to burn things up. And to add to the tension, Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty’s estranged daughter with his late first wife, arrives out of the blue to seek refuge from her gangster ex-husband.
There’s some – perhaps some would say not quite sufficient – humour in this mostly dark outing. And Ginny reminds me a little of Cate Blanchett’s highly-strung character in Blue Jasmine. It’s not that Winslet is not trying her best here, but perhaps due to the stagey feel of the film (a lot of the scenes unfold within the claustrophobic confines of the Coney Island apartment) and the unmemorable dialogue (of which there’s a lot of), it’s harder to empathise with her character’s struggles.
I’m also not totally convinced by the chemistry between her and Timberlake, who also doubles up as the film’s narrator with no qualms over breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience.
Temple, with her mix of innocence and worldliness, is a bright star who really makes an impression. But the plot predictably pushes her character into falling in love with Mickey, leading to a not-quite-impactful twist at the end.
Yes, this film has most of Allen’s trademarks – complete with a tale of quiet devastation amid a playground of dreams and hope, bathed always in warm sunset lighting and wrapped in nostalgia and sentimentality. It even has a scene that may be too close to reality for comfort, where Ginny accuses Humpty of treating his daughter as his girlfriend.
Accusation is still ongoing of Allen, who married his ex-wife Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, allegedly molesting his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow. In the current climate fuelled by the “Weinstein effect”, it’s uncertain if Allen still has a Hollywood career.
But his biggest enemy could well be his own ability to come up with good scripts for upcoming projects. Following the dismally ho-hum Amazon Studios TV series, Crisis in Six Scenes (2016), and this film, I can only wonder if being forced to work in Europe or with non-Hollywood actors can actually pull him out of his rut in the near future.
… still there’s more …