By Elias Savada.
Woody Allen has gone dumpster diving. His new film, Wonder Wheel, is anything but wondrous. In fact, it stinks. The aging auteur may open his movie with a cloud-specked blue sky framing the aquamarine beach umbrellas and masses of New Yawkers absorbing the sun across every inch of available sand adjoining the Coney Island Boardwalk. But wait a few moments and this dreary 1950 ode to the struggling masses tumbles into the sea and washes out with the tide. The actors work up a lather in trying to deal with the writer-director’s various sour and neurotic characters, most of whom appear stuck in a bad high school production of a Tennessee Williams play.
Congenial and self-centered Mickey Rubin (Justin Timberlake) introduces the show via voiceover, with gibberish about his being an NYU Masters student in DRAMAH loafing on the beach as a summer lifeguard, and that’s how Woody wants to play his film, as an interlocking calliope-infused stage piece centering on four lost souls. The others in the quartet would be scrumptiously vivacious Carolina (Juno Temple), nervous nelly and former-actress-now-waitress Ginny (Kate Winslet), and grumpy Humpty (Jim Belushi), who operates the merry-go-round.
For those keeping score, Humpty is a belligerent, struggling alcoholic, father of the estranged Carolina from his first marriage, and now on his second with Ginny, who is having a hard luck affair with Mickey. Carolina, on the run from her racketeer ex-husband, makes quick amends with dad, never a fan of the son-in-law. Ginny’s got a young red-haired kid, Richie (Jack Gore) from a previous marriage. He’s a movie-loving pyromaniac, presumably being played for laughs, but he comes across as just another misfire in Allen’s script.
Tensions are constantly escalating as the film plods along, set mostly in the family apartment next to the titular amusement park attraction. The cast just yells at each other. “I need a drink!” Humpty screams. “This Goddamn noise!” bellows Ginny. “Stop this nonsense!” cries a reviewer, watching in disbelief. And my hands ran out of fingers counting the clichés and metaphors.
The lighting is just so strange and uninspired, and from the great Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now), no less, working on his second film (after last year’s stumble, Café Society). When Allen falls in Wonder Wheel, he takes everyone down with him, including his regular editor Lisa Lepselter and production designer Santo Loquasto. In one scene under the boardwalk at night, a red glow is cast over Ginny to garish effect. It has no right being there, unless the crew is trying to douse the neighborhood in an unearthly neon glow. Minutes into a soliloquy, the fiery light is turned off, either Storaro finally woke up or Allen’s using outtakes.
Timberlake pops back in 15 minutes into the feature, to further explain the already chatty characters. Minutes later he’s breaking the fourth wall (which he does again and again) with self-absorbed exposition, spilling beans about his affair. Cue the cascade of flashbacks in a sad attempt to right the sinking story.
Other problems: I couldn’t figure out how Timberlake’s hair looked so well-coiffed after a rainy day at work. And it seems, even if it’s overcast, there’ enough sunlight breaking through the clouds to create too-unrealistic summer sunsets basking the film’s leads—only to have the clouds back obscuring Humpty’s place moments later.
The writing is one of the worst scripts I’ve seen from Allen. Flawed characters are in abundance. Which doesn’t always make for a bad film, except that there is no imagination afoot here. No spark. No point. There’s no one to root for. A cheating mother who descends in Norma Desmond madness, a fire-setting kid, an angry husband, a too-pretty lifeguard who wants to date the step-daughter of the woman he’s sleeping with.
There’s one other thing missing. Anything to laugh at. It’s a dreary piece enlightened only but a peppy soundtrack.
Despite the period feel (15¢ shakes at Carvel, movie posters for the 1950 summer western Winchester ’73), I sometimes felt the era was of more recent vintage, especially when Carolina’s ex-husband sends too-familiar henchmen looking like the cast from The Sopranos. Because they are the same actors (Tony Sirico, Steve Schirripa) from that series. Ugh.
Allen also plays the fate/destiny card too easily, at least for pushing Mickey and Carolina together. And yet the dialogue continues to slump. She: “You’ve been around the world!” He: ” But, you’ve been around the block!”
Wonder Wheel is a mess, and Woody, you’re a blockhead!
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).