Wonder Wheel is like a visit to Coney Island in the 1950s with Woody Allen.
A family lives at the amusement park right near the ferris wheel, just about the same as the family in Annie Hall with Allen’s Alvy Singer fantasizing about the thoroughly not Jewish Annie seeing Alvy’s Jewish roots. The Singer family in that film lived right under the roller coaster, and just like the characters in Wonder Wheel, home life was constant argument, yelling and tumult.
It’s a place of great resonance for Allen. And as with earlier films, Allen dumps an angry nostalgia on this marginal working class life. It’s a setting with raw emotion and none of the genteel sophistication of the artsy comfortable people of other films who live their ethnically sterile lives in Manhattan.
This Coney Island family has become like a staple in Woody Allen movies. Here, an always angry father, named Humpty, as in Humpty Dumpty and played by Jim Belushi. Ginny, the mother (Kate Winslet), who yells back, but with less power and more heartbreak hidden in her face. And, of course, an eccentric schoolboy son – this time a minor league arsonist, who sets fires all over the Coney Island boardwalk and at school.
Humpty has an adult daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), who married a mobster and is now on the run fearing for her life. She seeks refuge with Humpty even though he’s disowned her. Meanwhile, dissatisfied Ginny begins an affair with Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a young lifeguard on the beach, who narrates the film. And then, in an obvious move, Mickey the lifeguard takes a shine to Carolina. It’s too much like a justification for Allen’s marriage to Soon-Yi Previn, the daughter of Allen’s then-girlfriend Mia Farrow.
There’s nothing new in Woody Allen parading his psyche before his audience. This time, though, he’s put it into a stylized package that feels like a remote dance. It’s pretty enough, but at the same time so deliberately clichéd that the elements can’t develop their power. The film never grabs onto what matters. Allen heightens the colors, and sometimes puts a red wash over the entire image. He intensifies the story elements. He ratchets up the acting, but over its course, the overheated production mostly distracts from any kind of real feeling the film might generate.
It’s hard to worry about what could be a genuine crisis for Ginny in her despair, when the sound track repeats relentlessly the Mills Brothers ditty “Coney Island Washboard.” How do you take seriously the cartoon mobsters who come looking for Carolina, or the stylized dialogue that leads you away from the possible depth in the story and goes for the cute surface, like the silly overplayed melodramas at small town celebrations in the summer. You don’t worry if Snidely Whiplash is going to foreclose on the widow; it’s just a goof on a trite storyline.
The great moment in Wonder Wheel comes from Kate Winslet near the end of the film. It’s as if she suddenly grabs the movie by the throat and gives Ginny the rich complexity the film’s been hiding. Winslet takes over the scene; she dominates the entire space of the set and demands that the audience – and the film itself – take Ginny seriously.
Ever since Woody Allen’s life became the subject of scandal and possible real misbehavior years ago, it seems to me that he’s held back on feeling. With Wonder Wheel, he looks like he’s taking cover behind elegant shooting and acting and the fabulous art design of Santo Loquasto.
Allen is a master filmmaker; he has remarkable command of story and image, but maybe he’s lost his nerve. He no longer goes right to the heart of the stuff, as he did in many of his earlier films – Stardust Memories, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters. He still has the tools for greatness, but maybe no longer the will.