Unfortunately, There is Little Wonder in Wonder Wheel
Woody Allen’s latest film, Wonder Wheel, whisks us off to what we can only imagine must be the youthful memories of a lighter time in his life. A time when life was simpler and people weren’t up in arms about things like diversity or marrying your adopted daughter. Ah yes, that magical time that was the 1950’s in Coney Island.
Wonder Wheel plays very much like a stage play, which is probably why it fails so miserably as a movie. The biggest sin that it commits to is that it tells, rather than shows. This is primarily seen through its use of Justin Timberlake as a narrator and primary character, who pauses from time to time to make sure that audiences are actually able to follow along with the films relatively simple plot. These little interludes of Timberlake breaking the third wall to almost “mansplain” the situations to the audience almost become unbearable after a while, because, like I said, it’s a relatively simple plot.
Long story short, it’s a classic story of a married woman has an affair with a younger man, who then KNOWINGLY decides to start courting her younger stepdaughter. Yeah, it’s bordering on detestable to imagine a guy doing something like this, but instead, Allen decides to play it off as some sort of “tragic flaw.” Who knew being a f*#@ boi was a thematic element? Yet, here is this story about a young, aspiring writer who has come along to ruin an entire family. Of course, if it was just him, then surely they would be able to overcome this obstacle. So, Allen does the only thing he can and gives every character their own “tragic flaw” disguised as some sort of romanticized ideal.
In this way, Wonder Wheel is very much like a staged production. Meaning that it is a small film that relies on monologues to drive it’s scenes forward. Characters enter and leave on queue, always waiting just off camera to have their moment in the spotlight, and the camera work obliges them to the best of its abilities, turning the audience into passive observers with no role to play. Nothing is shown that the characters aren’t aware of, meaning that any suspense the film might be playing at creating is wasted. I’m sure that Wonder Wheel would make an interesting play, with its characters all struggling to keep up with their roles in life, even as their masks start to crumble. As a movie though, it feels very been there, done that.
The saving grace of Wonder Wheel is the surprising performances it pulls out of the majority of its actors. Jim Belushi is especially good in the film as a recovering alcoholic who puts his foot in his mouth more often than not when it comes to his wife, Kate Winslet. In the beginning, there is almost something admirable about their relationship as they are brutally honest with each other, but never seem to take anything the other says personally. Of course, it doesn’t take long for their relationship to change into an abusive pit, that neither can find a way to escape from. Strangely enough, though, Belushi seems to excel in his role here.
Outside of Winslet and Belushi though, the rest of the cast sort of meanders along. Timberlake is certainly eager to do well with his part, but his characters are such a cliche that ‘s hard to take him seriously at any point in the movie. This is mostly because the film awkwardly dates itself, tossing in old Brooklyn accents and sayings that feel out of place despite the production values.
Wonder Wheel is a movie that never manages to excel in any regard. The story behind it is interesting enough, but it never grabs hold of the audience. Instead, it feels small, so small that it’s hardly worth the audiences time. I’m not sure if I expect more from Woody Allen or not, especially since this does seem like his kind of story, complete with a hero who is very much a scumbag. To say that I hate Wonder Wheel is a bit strong because that would imply that I felt anything about it after walking out. Instead, most of my time in the film was filled with ambivalence. I never really cared about the characters, because they were all terrible people without redeemable story arcs. Instead, Wonder Wheel is more self-indulgent seemingly designed for Allen to show off how well read he is, and no one wants to sit through 2 hours of pompousness.