Despite having Oscar winning Brit actress Kate Winslet on board, along with fellow Brit performer Juno Temple, Wonder Wheel feels too much like Woody Allen’s swan song in the world of film. Set in 1950’s Coney Island, the film, written and directed by Allen, is part nostalgic remembrance of a by-gone era and part semi-autobiographic nuance.
Despite a stellar cast that includes Jim Belushi and Justin Timberlake, Wonder Wheel is sheer drudgery on celluloid. It is difficult to watch and bogs down repeatedly in several areas. The dialogue, complete with heavy accents and stilted delivery, feels forced and overdone.
Timberlake sounds like he is doing a Woody Allen impression, while Belushi; who is loaded down with an awkward character and dialogue that is old fashioned and more suited to a amateur dramatics society than a huge film, struggles to make his Humpty feel real.
Humpty (Belushi) is a carousel operator at Coney Island. His wife Ginny (Winslet) has a boy from another marriage and is a former “actress.” Carolina (Temple) is Humpty’s child from his first marriage and she is on the run from her husband; a gangster.
Mickey (Timberlake) is narrator of the film and a lifeguard who is having an affair with the older Ginny. He meets, and falls for, Carolina. The end result is a messy-ish love triangle that ends in tears for all involved.
All these characters are shallow and somewhat two dimensional. Humpty is built up to be a real punch-happy ogre when he drinks. Yet, when he does hit the sauce, never lives up to his billing. Carolina is trying to escape her hoodlum husband and Ginny lives in the past.
The only part of the film that feels legitimate occurs when Ginny describes how she feels about working at the clam house at Coney Island. The unhappy woman, who suffers from migraines, explains that she is playing the role of waitress at the eatery. It is the one moment of truth in the entire film.
There are parts of the film that can be seen as autobiographical. At one point Ginny tells Humpty that he treats his daughter like his “girlfriend” and that when she “dump’s him” again he will be miserable. A little too close to something that one can image Mia Farrow saying to Woody Allen in real life.
None of the characters in the film are likable. We do sympathize to some degree with Ginny; burdened with a son who is a firebug, but none of these people come across as real. Each relationship seems forced and laborious. Wonder Wheel seems more like a stage play than a film.
The actors all either over-act or “under” act. Belushi never really seems to have a handle on Humpty and Winslet goes all “Blanch Dubois” when Woody’s alter ego Mickey, chooses the wrong skirt in the last half of the film.
Wonder Wheel is not an enjoyable film to watch. While Woody Allen has managed to deliver consistently on his “niche” films, this time he comes up short. The tale is not up to par with his past works and one wonders if perhaps the filmmaker should not hang up his pen and camera.
Winslet manages to make the most of her drama queen role as Ginny and Temple shines equally well as the mixed up youngster who married poorly. Belushi and Timberlake are miscast and the film itself limps to an unsatisfactory conclusion.
Wonder Wheel is a shaky 3 star film that annoys rather than entertains. Give this one a miss…It really does feel like Woody Allen’s swan song.