‘Wonder Wheel’ is a smartly put together film by smart people, a melodrama that references this in meta-dialogue and a showpiece for a talented cast and crew.
To say it doesn’t draw you in while watching would be a lie but it is too predictable, too showy and its characters ultimately too unlikeable.
We marvel at Kate Winslet’s 'acting' rather than despair for her character’s plight. We recognise the cleverness of director Woody Allen’s script rather than be moved by it. And we consider how cinematographer Vittorio Storaro chooses his framing throughout to drive home a point rather than have it subconsciously wash over us in support of the story’s intentions.
That is not to say the movie is not without merit. While it doesn’t measure up to the game-changer ‘Match Point’ or the crowd pleaser ‘Midnight in Paris’, ‘Wonder Wheel’ still shows Allen dialling back his style in both the dialogue and the characters on screen.
Visually, it pushes him into new territory in his second collaboration with Storaro with bigger production values for the period piece and a larger colour palette.
For Kate Winslet alone the film deserves to be seen and it offers a reminder that Jim Belushi can act in more than network television programming.
Opening in the 1950s with Carolina (Juno Temple) coming to Coney Island to seek out her estranged father Humpty (James Belushi) who works at the park’s carousel. She’s on the run from her gangster husband and figures nobody will suspect she will seek out her alcoholic father.
Humpty has sobered up due to a marriage to former actress Ginny (Kate Winslet) who now works as a waitress at the local diner. They’re trying to raise Ginny’s son who keeps starting fires around the place.
Then there’s Justin Timberlake as the handsome, local lifeguard Mickey who lives in the village and is studying the arts at university.
Carolina is the catalyst for change in this story and Mickey the narrator of it, but the narrative belongs to the character of Ginny.
Allen’s films always prove opportunities for his cast to show their chops; Belushi as Humpty is full of bluster but not the real power in his household and subtlety conveys how he changes for better or worse depending on how the women in his life treat him.
Temple adds a little mystery to her character; she’s either the most decent person in the movie or the smartest, maybe both. Timberlake perfectly conveys a man so full of lines he has long since started believing them himself.
Kate Winslet in another standout performance as Ginny is so full of emotions she can’t help but express them no matter how hard she tries. There is tremendous craftsmanship on show here and not just in the acting. The set of Humpty and Ginny’s house has interactions staged like a play.
There are long shots covered in long takes to capture various actions by those onscreen. There is careful repetition of certain points of view and songs throughout. The emotional Ginny is bathed in red lighting while the calmer Carolina is bathed in blue, variances on this and when it is transferred to other characters is particularly telling.
The costumes are great and use of CGI and production design to make real locations appear as 1950s Coney Island are done seamlessly. The setting plays as a heightened reality, nostalgic memory and a painstaking period recreation.
Unlike say ‘Blue Jasmine’ though, we know the score and we sit more in judgement of these people than sadness at their plight.