Review: Woody Allen's 'Wonder Wheel' Is A Carnival Ride Of Tragic Flaws

Like clockwork you can count on a new Woody Allen movie every year. That's fine. Plenty of directors do only one movie a year; the difference is that Allen is a legend who has been coasting by telling the same story for decades. Sure, he dresses them up differently; sometimes he sets them in France, sometimes he has one of the  characters be a con artist, and sometimes, like in the middling Wonder Wheel, he uses a Coney Island amusement park as the background.

In this case, the  1950s Coney Island setting makes for one of Allen's most evocative, with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro capturing the nostalgia of the era. You can practically feel the weightless freedom of the Ferris wheel, smell the stale popcorn and hot dogs, as Vittorio's images enrapture with warm oranges and reds, occasionally shifting into darker hues to match the fatalistic tendencies of the story's tragic characters. And they are all tragic in their own way, which seems to be the point of Allen's melodrama; the director clearly in a mood to try and recapture the dark magic of Crimes and Misdemeanors but skewing closer to the serviceable Match Point.

To be fair, I think Allen is best when his mood is sour like this, but Wonder Wheel still feels like too much of a retread to get a pass. In the first 30 seconds I wanted to shut it off outright, as lifeguard/narrator Mickey Rubin (Justin Timberlake, super miscast) tells us he has "aspirations of being a great writer". Ugh, really? He's a classic Allen trope character; pretentious, stereotypically charming, and forgettable. Because he fancies himself a playwright he looks for the tragic flaw in everyone he meets, which means we too will be told exactly what is wrong with them, rather than allowing the actors to show us. If Mickey is a classic Allen trope, he's responsible for carrying on a classic Allen fail.

The story's actual focus belongs to Ginny, played by the wonderful Kate Winslet in a performance that is better than the script allows for. A former actress now a waitress working a the carnival's fish shack, she's stuck in a loveless marriage to a hump appropriately named Humpty (Jim Belushi), with who she has a fire-starting son (Jack Gore). So life isn't good, but she finds fleeting moments of happiness in the affair she's carrying on with Mickey, who naturally analyzes the Hell out of this adulterous situation for us. Yeah, that's passionate.  The walls start closing in on Ginny with the arrival of Humpty's estranged daughter Carolina (Juno Temple, beneath her), a sexy, spunky little number who drives the men wild, including Mickey.

Oh, and Carolina has mobsters (including Paulie Walnuts!!!) chasing after her.

Gangsters, adultery, arson, it all makes for a Shakespearean level tragedy minus the pathos or the character development to make much of an emotional impact. Allen gives his characters a lot of things to say but not much to actually do, and while that's okay if we don't get to see much of Belushi it's a crime with Winslet. She alone gives us a character worth sympathizing with, as Ginny, despite her indiscretions, is simply a woman who wants more than the meager life she's stuck in. In her desperation for excitement she's made missteps, and Allen at first seems to sympathize with her situation, too. But no, he instead spends the bulk of the film obsessing over her age, and emphasizing every way in which she is wrong. It's not something you ever see him do with the plethora of male characters put in similar situations. 

Allen hits on the "tragic flaw" theme so hard he doesn't realize his own failings, up to and including parallels to his own personal life. Without giving too much away, there comes a point when Mickey, who finds himself the prize in a battle of the heart between Ginny and Carolina, is forced to make a decision. In doing so he practically quotes Allen during his public apology for pursuing his then-stepdaughter Soon-Yi, "The heart wants what it wants". Poor Mickey. Screw you, Ginny, for ruining everything, but that Mickey guy...man, can't believe he was put in such a predicament. He had no say in the matter, the heart wants what it wants.

You can watch Wonder Wheel and never think for a second about Allen's problematic perspective, but still find it to be an underwhelming film. I keep thinking at some point Allen will put all of the pieces together again and deliver one final classic. But even here, with a terrific lead performance by Winslet and beautifully effective cinematography, Allen ended up being his own worst enemy.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5