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The Frustrating Glow Of ‘Wonder Wheel’ (Movie Review)

I’ve had a tough time processing Wonder Wheel. It has nothing to do with writer/director Woody Allen as a person or even the idea of analyzing multiple “awards season” movies at the same time. It has a lot more to do with the familiarity of Allen’s ideas matched to his choices as a visual filmmaker. Wonder Wheel features a lot of great highlights, which includes the excellent cinematography by Vittorio Storaro. There are also some problems concerning my take on individual performances, plot development, and more. That makes Wonder Wheel a problematic film, but there is value to be found here.

Set in 1950s New York, specifically at Coney Island, the film is introduced to us by Mickey Rubin, a lifeguard who aspires to be a writer/playwright, played by Justin Timberlake (subbing in as this year’s ‘Woody Allen’ character). Right off the bat, Mickey stares at the screen and proclaims his love for melodrama and larger-than-life characters. It’s not an audacious choice as much as it is a copout, but at the same time, it is clear Allen knows this. That’s also why I find Timberlake’s presence as one pulling me both ways.

Timberlake can be good in the right role, but he certainly has an image. I can’t say he’s shown much versatility, but Allen perhaps wanted to channel his wholesome nature for the sake of a broad character such as this. A lot of the movie has this touch, which is why I’m singling him out. Right away, Wonder Wheel wants us to dive into the heightened reality that would be entirely at home in a film or play made in the 1950s.

This approach fuels the rest of the story and makes us aware of the key influence. Allen has gone back to a couple of sources many times. Rather than show his fondness for Ingmar Bergman or Russian nihilist authors, though, we once again see Allen riff on Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. So despite the exuberance that comes from Mickey’s love of melodrama, this is a film happy to put the viewer down in the dumps with the rest of the less excitable characters.

Kate Winslet stars as Ginny, a lowly wife of a carousel operator who is having an affair with Mickey. Winslet is terrific in this film. She plays a melancholic woman who is put in the position to explore all the facets of someone yearning for more and having it be out of reach for her. With various vices and an apartment that becomes all too familiar, the character’s anguish is palpable. It honestly felt like Ginny’s head could explode at any minute from the way she continually describes having a headache.

Two other actors make up the rest of this cast. Ginny’s carnival worker husband is Humpty, played by Jim Belushi. This performance is a bit all over the place in a way that’s suitable for the stage, but off-putting here. Belushi once again shows how well he’s eased into dramatic acting on a more consistent level, that said, he jumps around between being excited and awful to his wife while holding a pained (and constipated) look for much of the film. That’s not said to be crass, but if Ginny continually has a headache, Humpty seems as if he’s barely containing an ulcer.

The final central performance comes from Juno Temple. She stars as Caroline and drives much of the actual plot. Caroline is the estranged daughter of Humpty, and she has come back to live with him and Ginny (her stepmother). This is to avoid the mob, after talking to the cops about her criminal husband. During this time, she also falls for Mickey, which creates a complicated love triangle with a woman that doesn’t need to newly added stress.

Enough is laid out to allow the audience in on where things must inevitably go, especially once they see this is another Allen tragedy, as opposed to one of his comedies. That in mind, it’s not as if he’s trying to improve upon a Williams’ script, let alone the nature of this plot. It’s more about the mood and what he’s doing with these characters. On that level, there is a good amount of work to admire.

Whether or not Allen gets proper credit for his directorial work, instincts as a filmmaker, and the crews he assembles for the making of his films, between 2016’s Café Society and now Wonder Wheel, Amazon Studios has given Allen enough of a budget to make some really good-looking movies. The use of Coney Island and whatever post-production magic creates a colorful glow, not unlike La La Land, where every scene is either set at magic hour or is awash in bright colors. The use of close-ups further helps us appreciate how these colors reflect on the characters in a physical manner as well as a thematic one.

Some long, dialogue-heavy takes further show the commitment of the cast to this script. I can take issue with some of the uneven characterizations, but there’s also a sort of throwback feel to the film that, again, has me frustrated about what to champion exactly. Does Wonder Wheel get credit for desiring to be so in tuned with work from the past, or should it be penalized for cherishing nostalgia? Tipping the scales means celebrating what works, and there are some great monologues from Winslet’s Ginny that feel just as powerful as what Cate Blanchett delivered in her Oscar-winning Blue Jasmine performance. Along with Storaro’s work, it becomes easier to settle on an overall opinion.

Wonder Wheel brings audiences a lot of what they’ve seen before but feels like more than a stylish exercise. It’s incredibly well-shot and lets the actors rise to the challenge for the most part. There will likely be a separation on this year’s Allen effort for a variety of reasons, but one does wonder where the appreciation for certain classics go if other films can’t be so forthcoming about their admiration of them. Wonder Wheel is not a new Allen classic, but it’s neat to see how the movie appreciates its inspirations.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Video Game Player, Comic Book Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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