Wonder Wheel

By: Jessica Goddard

Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel is colourful, melodramatic, deliciously tacky cinematic theatre driven by an intriguing premise and infused with refreshing nostalgia.  It’s visually delightful, and the quirky setting and quirkier characters sustain curiosity even if those characters don’t feel totally real.

While movies set in the present day struggle to make our reliance on digital communication interesting on screen, Wonder Wheel’s 1950s setting doesn’t have that problem.  Which makes its drama – as it builds and builds to unnerving crescendo – all the more energizing.  In a lot of ways, the script makes for a great case study in the power of effective dramatic irony.

We open with Justin Timberlake as Mickey, a NYU student working as a Coney Island lifeguard in a particularly peppy and upbeat 1950s.  He explains right away that as an aspiring playwright, the viewer should be wary of his tendency to ascribe larger-than-life qualities to the characters in his retelling of that summer’s events.  We see that Coney Island is full of happy people, with the glaring exception of Ginny (Kate Winslet), a middle-aged former actress-turned-waitress who likes literally nothing about her life.  When Mickey and Ginny meet, Mickey is instantly attracted to her tragic quality and feels compelled to “save” her from her disappointing life and botched second marriage to Humpty (Jim Belushi), the carousel operator.  It actually looks like it could work out, until Humpty’s beautiful, young, estranged daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) shows up at Ginny and Humpty’s door, hiding from the mob who want her dead.  Suddenly Mickey is juggling a relationship with each woman in secret, while Carolina’s attempts to reform her life intersect with Ginny’s determination to finally get what she wants for once.

The movie’s dialogue is never great, though its lines can be.  Wonder Wheel rarely seems to involve any of its characters earnestly interacting, but more often is about individuals and their individual feelings as they’re misunderstood and disregarded and justified.  It’s worth mentioning that this movie is a dark one.  It’s no coincidence that we begin on a sunny, busy day at the beach surrounded by amusement park rides.

Isolating from Woody Allen’s filmography, personal history, and reputation, Wonder Wheel is a reasonably good movie boasting charming aesthetics, well-performed, interesting characters, and a story that’s definitely not boring.


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