When most people picture Coney Island, they imagine colorful carnival rides, fattening fast food and the bustling boardwalk. When most people think of Woody Allen films, they think of big, beautiful cities, complicated relationships and sophisticated cynicism. Placing the two together seems like a natural collaboration, a melding of everything at which Allen excels. But in an attempt to exaggerate Allen’s trademarks, “Wonder Wheel” doesn’t present anything new to his canon and exacerbates the film’s common plot and trite character flaws.
“Wonder Wheel” features the intertwining lives of four characters living and working in Coney Island during the 1950s. Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a former naval officer turned playwright, is having an affair with Ginny (Kate Winslet), a volatile waitress working at a clam house who is obsessed with her past as an actress. Mickey begins to question their affair when he starts to develop feelings for Ginny’s step-daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), a woman on the run from her gangster husband who returns to her father in hopes of safety and protection. Humpty (Jim Belushi), Carolina’s father and Ginny’s husband, struggles with his alcohol abuse and the return of his daughter. The story progresses through Ginny’s attachment to Mickey, Mickey’s philosophical discoveries and how the other characters respond to and are affected by their actions.
Woody Allen is known for his stupendous portrayal of cities, and “Wonder Wheel” is no exception. The imagery and lighting throughout the film are flawless. Coney Island glistens and looks straight out of the 1950s. The perfect combination of light and color flushes the faces of characters and impeccably reflects their emotions. Not one audience member questions why it is raining in Coney Island during the summer or why it is so bright out during a rainstorm because they are too enrapt in the beauty reaching their eyes from the screen.
It’s clear that Allen attempts to stray away from his usual storytelling techniques. Mickey interjects the story with narration, describing the plot like a play. While this is an interesting tactic, it doesn’t add much to the plot itself, and it removes audience members from the story, placing them into Mickey’s complicated narrations. His interludes often include discussions of fate and tragedy, which, while interesting and insightful, take away from a plot that should have been able to stand on its own.
Jessica Miglio/Amazon Studios/Courtesy
The plot takes typical Allen cliches, such as the complicated romance and cynical main characters, and exaggerates them to such an extent that their flaws are their defining characteristics. The romance between Ginny and Mickey seems beautifully complicated; both of them have a deep appreciation for the theatrics of life and believe in the divine power of fate. But the film romanticizes the concept of “affair” by making it seem as though fate has total control, as if to say that we are all actors in our own lives and no one should be held accountable. It seems almost as though Allen is delving into the guilt he feels about his own affair — of which there should be plenty.
The character who presents the most issues happens to be one of the few who doesn’t have an affinity for cynicism. Carolina has no flaws; she’s the epitome of the virginal, pure princess. This is annoyingly thrown in the audience’s face to the point that even when she finds out crushing news about her stepmother and her love interest, she simply walks away, saying she needs to think about it. As for those characters who are cynical, every time they go into a monologue describing their sardonic worldview, they repeat themselves constantly and unnecessarily, making it seem as though they are trying to convince the audience rather than express themselves.
The film’s unaccountable characters and repetitive nature overpower the exquisitely crafted shots, making “Wonder Wheel” somewhat difficult to swallow. Fans of Allen’s work will enjoy its stereotypical attributes, and there’s also something there for those nostalgic about their experiences at Coney Island. But be warned — this nostalgia is also marred by alcoholism, complicated affairs and unlikable characters.
“Wonder Wheel” opens today at Albany Twin.