Woody Allen’s “Wonder Wheel” Aspires To Be a 1950s “Blue Jasmine,” But It Misses By a Mile


DECEMBER 18, 2017

What the hell happened to Woody Allen’s writing?

Yes, I know that he has recently had more bad movies than good (I’m thinking of “Irrational Man” and “Magic in the Moonlight” in particular), but most of his worst recent films have been relative trifles.  With his 49th and latest film, “Wonder Wheel,” Allen swings for the fences and misses by a mile.

This is surprising, because we are solidly back in crazy-lady “Blue Jasmine” territory, where he scored such a triumph a mere four years ago.  Add to that its familiar setting in Coney Island, where his Alvy Singer grew up living under the roller coaster in 1977’s “Annie Hall,” and “Wonder Wheel” should be easily in Allen’s comfort zone.  But it is Allen’s screenplay, usually his strength, which is the key element that fails him here.

Set sometime in the early 1950s, “Wonder Wheel” is narrated by lifeguard Mickey Rubin (Justin Timberlake), who wanders through the bathers at Coney Island’s beach talking directly to the camera in introducing himself — when not on the beach, he is a graduate student in drama writing at NYU, hoping to pen a drama capturing “great tragic plays about human life.”  Uh-oh.

His tale focuses on frustrated clam house waitress Ginny Rannell (Kate Winslet) who comes to realize that she’s the architect of her own unhappiness.  Having thrown away a promising marriage to a jazz musician, with whom she had a son, Richie (Jack Gore), Ginny married carousel operator Humpty (Jim Belushi) who offered the possibility of some stability in her life, as along as he stays off the sauce which can cause him to turn violent.

Then who should show up on their doorstep but Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty’s estranged daughter, who turned her back on her family at age 20 to marry a flashy gangster.  However, after it became clear that she knew too much about her husband’s business to stay alive, she flees to seek refuge with her father, never thinking that her husband’s goons would ever follow her to Coney Island.  Right.

Feeling trapped in a loveless marriage and now with gangster threats to the family with the newly-arrived Carolina, Ginny is adrift until she crosses paths with lifeguard Mickey.  The two begin a romantic affair which offers promise and hope for Ginny…that is, until Mickey locks eyes with Carolina.  Let’s just say that romantic complications ensue.

On paper, this scenario sounds a bit familiar but still potentially promising.  On film, however, it’s anything but.

Allen’s conceit here is writing and staging his key scenes as if the action was being set as a stage drama.  There are a few exterior scenes on the beach and on the boardwalk, as well as in the clam house and in a counselor’s office (Richie is getting counseling because he is a pyromaniac).  But the bulk of the narrative takes place in the Rannell’s set-like apartment located over an amusement-park arcade.  Even the legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro seems to have caught the stagy bug as several shots of Winslet begin with her bathed in impossibly golden sunlight, which as the scene turns cold, turn to blue.

Although Timberlake’s aspiring playwright character leans toward emulating Eugene O’Neill, Allen’s script tries to evoke the hothouse atmosphere of Tennessee Williams plays, to which Allen doesn’t come close here.  Either the dialogue is too much Mickey pontificating (lots of talk of writing plays about The Human Condition) or else Ginny is speaking in dialogue that is embarrassingly on-the nose — at one point, furious that Mickey is eying Carolina, she actually fumes “I’m consumed with jealousy.”  No shit, Ginny.

Winslet is giving her considerable all here, but what can you do with dialogue like this?  “Blue Jasmine” this ain’t.  As Carolina, Temple comes off relatively unscathed, as there are fewer clunkers in her lines.  Belushi delivers the performance you pretty much expect him to give — not bad, although it’s not nearly as effective in a similar role by Andrew Dice Clay in “Blue Jasmine.”

Sorry to say because I like him in films a lot, but I think Timberlake is miscast here.  To me at least, he is such a modern-day character actor (by which I mean 1990s to the present) that, although you may dress him in up in period costumes, I never bought him as an aspiring playwright at NYU in the 1950s, and that’s too important an element of the film not to work.

As the closing night attraction at this year’s New York Film Festival, “Wonder Wheel” caught the positive attention of several film critics.  I’m glad they enjoyed it.  But I’d would rather look forward to Allen’s 50th feature film next year (whatever it is) rather than dwell at all on this disappointing misfire.