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Movie review: Winslet's performance highlights vivid but troubled 'Wonder Wheel'

POSTED December 21, 2017 7:09 a.m.
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“WONDER WHEEL” — 2½ stars — Jim Belushi, Juno Temple, Justin Timberlake, Kate Winslet; PG-13 (thematic content including some sexuality, language and smoking); in general release

Woody Allen’s “Wonder Wheel” looks gorgeous. The director’s latest film, set on Coney Island in the height of the 1950s, is soaked in vivid colors, bathing its characters in incredible reds, blues and oranges. At times, the lighting even changes halfway through a character’s monologue, making it hard to stay focused on the dialogue.

The movie itself? It’s OK. Allen’s film revolves around a small family who lives at the park and packs enough drama to make the multicolored circus outside pale by comparison.

A lifeguard and aspiring playwright named Mickey (Justin Timberlake) narrates the story and introduces us to a married couple living in a converted apartment that used to house a freak show. Humpty (Jim Belushi) runs the carousel and Ginny (Kate Winslet) is a waitress at the local clam house. It’s the second marriage for both, and Ginny’s son Richie (Jack Gore) — who has picked up an unfortunate arson habit — also lives with them.

Then Carolina (Juno Temple) arrives. Carolina is Humpty’s adult daughter, on the lam from her mobster husband Frank after ratting him out to the feds. Humpty had warned her about getting involved with the mob but reluctantly takes her in, assuming Frank’s associates won’t look for her there considering the family tension. Naturally, he assumes wrong.

It’s around this time that Mickey throws in a twist to get the story rolling: He’s having an affair with Ginny. It’s pretty routine as adulterous affairs go, right up until Ginny meets Carolina. Then things get complicated.

Strip all the extracurriculars and “Wonder Wheel” is Allen’s portrait of a middle-aged woman wrestling with her identity, her mortality and her penetrating guilt. As the mob closes in on Carolina and the family infidelities get closer and closer to the surface, everything continually comes back to Ginny. The story keeps her front and center, giving Winslet lots of room to showcase her talents for such a performance.

Oftentimes, it feels like that performance was intended for a stage, with long monologues and single shot scenes that follow characters around the apartment as a continuous set piece. Combined with the distinctive visual style, which pours light in from the windows like Coney Island is stuck in an eternal magic hour, “Wonder Wheel” becomes one of the more distinctive movie experiences of the season.

At the same time, beyond the rich color and Winslet’s performance, “Wonder Wheel’s” various gears struggle to mesh, and Allen’s film frequently feels like something is just a little off. The characters aren’t interesting enough, the performances feel a little too stiff, the spectre of Allen’s better films — such as 2013’s “Blue Jasmine” — keep reminding you that this effort just isn’t at the same level.

Unfortunately, next to all the other “Wonder” movies of 2017 — the groundbreaking “Wonder Woman,” the nostalgic musing “Wonderstruck" and the adorable and heartwarming “Wonder” — “Wonder Wheel” is the least worthy of the term.

“Wonder Wheel” is rated PG-13 for thematic content including some sexuality, language and smoking; running time: 101 minutes.

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