This American drama film, set in the 1950’s, tells the story of a woman, who feels trapped by life. She and her husband’s estranged daughter find themselves attracted to the same man.
Ginny (Kate Winslet) is a waitress in an oyster house on Brooklyn’s Coney Island boardwalk, and she is married to Humpty (Jim Belushi), a middle-aged, rough-edged carousel operator at the amusement park. It is a second marriage for both.
The film’s title, “Wonder Wheel”, is a Coney Island Ferris-wheel which is a metaphor for the film’s evolving events. Such a wheel constantly goes around, but goes nowhere. “Like life?”, Allen says.
Feeling trapped by her marriage and resentful of Humpty’s treatment of her, Ginny falls for a good-looking lifeguard on the local beach front, Mickey Rubin (Justin Timberlake). Mickey dreams of becoming a playwright and is studying for a master’s degree in European Drama. Carolina (Juno Temple), who is Humpty’s daughter from his previous marriage, arrives unexpectedly in town. She is fleeing from her gangster ex-husband, and falls for Mickey too. Mickey is narrator for the movie from time to time, but is not the film’s main focus.
The film spends its time developing the intertwining interactions among the film’s four main characters: Ginny, Humpty, Mickey, and Carolina. Subplots revolve around dreams of unfulfilled ambition, the threat of violence, and life’s bitter disappointments, but they are secondary to the character development of Ginny. She is an emotionally volatile former actress, constantly on the edge of a nervous breakdown, who finds it hard to face the reality of a life that is very different from what she would like it to be. Her character is the central focus of the film.
The direction of Woody Allen is faithful to the period setting of the movie and uses cinematography to excellent effect by shifting hues and switching unexpectedly to lots of close-ups. Colours merge from gold to seedy yellow in a single, photographic take. The film is a nostalgic return to the way New York was in the past, and the cinematography resurrects a Coney Island feel to the movie that appeals.
The movie is a melodrama set in working class America, and typical of Woody Allen’s movies it is full of philosophical ideas, which are expressed by his characters – how can one compare fantasy with the harshness of reality? Is reality a daydream for some? And what actually is real love? The questions are never resolved, but they are always implicit in what the characters do and say.
This is not the best of Woody Allen’s movies, but it is also not the worst. Allen gives a period look to the film that is impressive, and he reinforces it with atmospheric cinematography, but the plot line is complex, the dialogue at times is forced, and the film spins itself into multiple subplots that force melodramatic acting. The glue that makes it all work is Kate Winslet. The film becomes her story, despite the distractions of Carolina, who is on the run from her gangster husband.
Winslet’s portrayal gives an almost caricatured version of Ginny, but it reinforces the philosophical sweep of the movie. She fills the character of Ginny with nervy vitality, reminding the viewer that although hope lies somewhere in the future, it will always be affected by failures of the past. She never loses the look of vulnerability, and her predicament pushes the film to a tragic conclusion. There are shades of “Blue Jasmine” (2013) and Tennessee Williams’ “Streetcar Named Desire” in her portrayal – all of them communicate different versions of emotionally defeated women.
The movie is not top-grade, vintage Woody Allen, but his familiar touch is evident throughout. One knows instantly that this has to be a Woody Allen movie, and that’s a complement.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting | Uploaded by: Mary Jennings