Personal details run deep in Woody Allen’s films. His life has been fodder for his stories. Sometimes overt, occasionally self-indulgently, most always accompanied by some sort of neurosis his writing reveals much about who he is. “Wonder Wall,” however, may top everything that came before with its story of a man who carries on with both mother and stepdaughter.
Set on Coney Island in the 1950s, “Wonder Wheel” stars Jim Belushi as Humpty, a carousel operator with Kate Winslet as Ginny, his actress-turned-waitress wife. They live in a dowdy apartment with budding pyromaniac Richie (Jack Gore), her son from a previous marriage. It’s a miserable existence. He’s an unhappy recovering alcoholic who prefers fishing to his wife’s company. Approaching forty, she’s unhappily working at a local clam house, battling migraines caused by the endless din from the surrounding amusement parks. “I am not a waitress in a clam bar,” she says. “There’s more to me than that. I’m playing the part of a waitress in a clam bar.”
Ginny’s only consolation is lifeguard and wannabe playwright Mickey (Justin Timberlake). He’s “poetic by nature with hopes of one day writing a classic,” and
she eats it up until Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty’s estranged daughter shows up, on the run from some nasty mobsters (Steve Schirripa and Tony Sirico).
Woody Allen has made almost fifty films ranging from lush romantic comedies and introspective dramas to art house explorations and musicals. “Wonder Wheel” feels like a combination of all of the above, and yet less because it feels as though its been cobbled together from fragments of his other, better movies. Nostalgia, over-romanticized sense of place, dangerous relationships, psychiatry and highbrow set decoration like references to “Hamlet and Oedipus” abound but it is all been-there-done-that.
Once upon a time Allen’s films clocked in at a svelte 90 minutes but in recent years have grown flabby. “Wonder Wheel” times out at 101 minutes but feels much longer. The stagey, heightened acting style recalls amateur hour Tennessee Williams and seems not only stuck in time, but actually have the ability to stop time. As Humpty Belushi only reminds us how good a role this might have been for John Goodman. Winslet seems to be channelling a heroine from a more interesting movie and Timberlake, as the movie’s in-demand love interest and Greek Chorus, shows none of the ease and grace so amply on display in his singing and dancing. Only Temple fights her way through the muck to emerge as a compelling character.
At the beginning of the film Mickey warns us that what we are about to see will be filtered through his playwright’s point of view. Keeping that promise, Allen uses every amount of artifice at his disposal—including cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s admittedly sumptuous photography—to create a film that is not only unreal but also unpleasant. “Oh God,” Ginny cries out at one point. “Spare me the bad drama.” Amen to that.