Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 9, 2020)
While most Woody Allen movies take place in the current day, the legendary filmmaker occasionally indulges in more nostalgic efforts. Into that category comes 2017ís Wonder Wheel, a view of New York in the 1950s.
Harold ďHumptyĒ Rannell (Jim Belushi) operates rides at Coney Island, where he lives with his second wife, Ginny (Kate Winslet). One day his estranged 26-year-old daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) appears and re-enters his life.
The product of Humptyís first marriage, he disowned her when she married a gangster named Frank. Now Carolina seeks her fatherís help, as she fears Frank wants to kill her because she gave information about him to the FBI.
In addition, Ginny feels like she never realized her potential, as she used to aspire to become an actor. Ginny finds an outlet for her disappointment via an affair with younger lifeguard Mickey Rubin (Justin Timberlake), a move that complicates when Mickey and Carolina meet and threaten to turn romantic.
Going into Wheel, I expected a warm, nostalgic comedy ala Allenís flicks like 1987ís Radio Days. However, Wheel provides a dramatic affair with little of Allenís usual mirth.
Not that Wheel goes down the ultra-serious Bergman-influenced path of 1978ís Interiors. However, it only occasionally displays any sense of lightness, and those elements usually stem from the use of peppy period songs, as the material itself remains pretty dramatic.
This simply feels wrong for Allen, as he seems unable to give the story the reality it needs. Rather than treat the tale and characters the believability they require, Allen gives the whole product a contrived tone that doesnít work.
Really, Allen channels his internal Tennessee Williams here, as Wheel often comes across like an adaptation of a stage play, and one that favors Williamsí style of melodrama. Heck, Humpty even reminds me of an older, more beaten-down Stanley Kowalski!
Though Allen deals with working class characters, he forces them to speak in florid, theatrical ways. At one point, Ginny says ďIt was someone I loved Ė a drummer whose rhythm pulsated with lifeĒ.
Who talks like that? This turns into exceedingly ďstagedĒ dialogue, and these tendencies take us out of the film.
Not that the characters or situations ever seem especially compelling. Ginny, Humpty, Carolina and Mickey all feel fairly dull, and Allen canít develop them into interesting roles with much internal life, no matter how much he thinks he makes them deep and meaningful.
Given how much the movie concentrates on the lives and interactions of these characters, our detachment from them becomes an issue. If we donít invest in these events, the project collapses.
Though I donít want to overstate these problems, as Wheel manages moderate narrative thrust, enough to keep us from boredom. However, that feels like a pretty low bar.
As usual, Allen recruits a good cast, and they all hold up pretty well in their underdone parts. Unsurprisingly, Belushi does worst, as he hams his way through Humpty a bit too much, but Winslet manages a bit of Ginnyís inner life and almost creates an interesting character.
Almost, but not quite. Wonder Wheel fares better than a lot of Allenís 21st century work, but that doesnít imply a compliment, as heís made some pretty weak movies in that span. Wheel remains watchable but it doesnít really click.