Woody Allen’s latest offering, Wonder Wheel, is a frustrating watch. Allen revisits the Coney Island theme park in which Annie Hall’s Alvy Singer grew up and introduces us to Ginny Rannell (Kate Winslet), her husband Humpty (Jim Belushi) and Ginny’s son, Richie (Jack Gore). Ginny and Humpty are unhappily married, struggling to hide their contempt for one another as they simply try to get by. Both have been married once before and part of Ginny in particular was clearly left there. Richie, her son from this first marriage, is a budding pyromaniac.
The arrival of Humpty’s estranged daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), shakes the family out of a standing truce and forces them to confront things long buried. Carolina had been disowned by her father for marrying into crime and returns out of desperation, pursued by the mafia for informing the FBI about her ex-husband. In parallel, Ginny embarks on an affair with a dashing lifeguard come aspiring playwright, Mickey Rubin (Justin Timberlake). “Coney Island: Barrel of Laffs” reads one sign advertising the amusement park – this, Wonder Wheel is not.
Plotting itself through the protagonists’ myriad bad decisions, Wonder Wheel feels more like the script for a play than a feature film and at one point, specifically references the work of Eugene O’Neill. The storytelling palate is so bold – from Richie’s fire setting to Carolina’s mob boss ex-husband – that the overall effect is dulled. With often clunky narrative, a strong cast is wasted. Juno Temple is the standout performer, capturing her character’s pure and caring nature well. However, capping off his recent audacious bid to be recognised as truly mediocre (see Superbowl LII and Man of the Woods), Justin Timberlake shows again why jacks of all trades rarely reach the heights of true specialists.
Visually, Wonder Wheel evokes Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. Striking and surprising colours and tones early in the picture become muted as the futile attempts of the characters to wrestle themselves from circumstance fall flat. Quite apart from this similarly in style, the procession towards inevitable tragedy borrows heavily from F Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous work. Given how wonderfully Allen moved between periods in Midnight in Paris, 1950s New York was an intriguing prospect – here, it contributes little. Perhaps purposefully the garish colours and constant noise of the park quickly become grating.
The film is at its most clever when it examines Ginny and Humpty’s relationship. In a marriage of convenience, Ginny’s unhappiness is never noticed by her husband. One of the better lines, “love is not gratitude, not company and not going through the motions of lovemaking” rings true for each scene featuring the couple. On one occasion, the camera pans across the family eating dinner. Humpty shovels the food into his mouth and Ginny looks at him, barely present. There are darker undercurrents to their marriage, ones of alcohol dependence and domestic violence yet attempts to convey the impact of this on Richie are underdeveloped.