Courtesy of Jessica Miglio/Amazon Studios

Courtesy of Jessica Miglio/Amazon Studios

‘Wonder Wheel’ Needs Room to Breathe

Woody Allen’s latest is filled with dialogue, but what is it really saying?

There are a handful of dialogue-free moments in Wonder Wheel, and they come as an enormous relief. Woody Allen’s talky drama—the 48th feature for the 82-year-old director—has a small group of characters yammering at each other for much of its 101 minutes. But there are a couple of times when the central figure, Ginny (Kate Winslet), is allowed to be alone with herself and her thoughts. Ginny frets, or flips through her movie magazines, or ponders doing something terrible in order to cling to the slim thread of pleasure she has recently had in her life. For a few seconds the movie breathes, partly because a terrific actress is allowed to bring her power into the space—and partly because these are among the only moments in the film when everybody isn’t trying way, way too hard to make something happen.

Ginny lives in Coney Island in the 1950s—literally in the middle of the amusement park, under the lights of the big Wonder Wheel attraction. She’s a waitress at a clam house there; her loutish husband Humpty (Jim Belushi) tinkers with the rides. They have a young son (Jack Gore) who likes setting things on fire. In the course of a warm summer, unhappy Ginny is swept off her feet by a younger lifeguard, Mickey (Justin Timberlake), whose cheerfully pretentious ideas about playwrighting give the film its rare bits of humor. In creating this milieu, Allen goes in the direction he tried in Blue Jasmine: kitchen-sink Americana reminiscent of notable mid-century playwrights like Tennessee Williams and Clifford Odets. Humpty acts like he’s stepped out of a community theater production of A Streetcar Named Desire, and Mickey rattles on with his night-school psychology about how characters in drama bring about their own downfall.

That insight fits the film’s people, so when Humpty’s daughter from a previous marriage, Carolina (Juno Temple), abruptly returns to the fold, we know things will not work out well. Allen, who is fond of gangster-movie conventions, has Carolina fleeing a Mafioso husband, which puts her in danger from the mob but lets her hang around long enough to attract Mickey’s easily-diverted attention.

Yes, this is a film in which a middle-aged woman must deal with her lover falling for her stepdaughter. I will make a confession and say that while I was watching Wonder Wheel, I actually didn’t think about Woody Allen’s notorious elopement with the stepdaughter of his lover Mia Farrow, although that bit of personal history has figured large in the reviews of many film critics who now moonlight as psychoanalysts. If Wonder Wheel were more vivid, if there were a strong identification with Ginny and her anguish, maybe the autobiographical element would be worth teasing out. But—aside from an awkward scene involving Ginny’s impulsive gift to Mickey—the love story doesn’t draw blood.

Once again we have a Woody Allen film in which the scenes feel half-improvised by actors whose tones range all over the place. Compare Jim Belushi’s razor-sharp comic work in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return—a performance full of happily sprung line readings and precise body language—with his floundering here. Aside from Winslet’s committed turn, the reason to see Wonder Wheel is the rapturous cinematography by the legendary Vittorio Storaro. The man who shot The Conformist and Apocalypse Now floods the screen with blues and oranges, emphasizing the theatrical spirit of what we’re watching (it’s hinted that the movie may be Mickey’s play, which I guess excuses a lot of turgid plotting). If Allen seemed half as engaged with the material as Storaro obviously is, we might have something here.

Wonder Wheel is so-so late-period Woody, with too many intriguing touches to dismiss out of hand. What’s frustrating is that Allen seems uninterested in following his own instincts. The film needs more of Ginny’s inner life, and maybe more of that kid who sets fires. A little redhead, he looks like every young actor Allen has cast as his surrogate when dealing with childhood. In Wonder Wheel, this apparent alter ego keeps setting destructive fires. I want to know more about him. Opens Fri., Dec. 8 at various theaters. Rated PG-13

film@seattleweekly.com

More in Film

Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) are beacons of light in <em>Rafiki</em>. Image courtesy Film Movement
Getting It Twisted

What to watch for at this year’s edition of Twist: A Queer Film Festival.

Ryan Gosling blasts off as Neil Armstrong in First Man. Photo by Daniel McFadden
Sea of Tranquility

In Damien Chazelle’s ‘First Man,’ Ryan Gosling delivers a fascinating blank slate portrayal of astronaut Neil Armstrong.

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga as star-crossed lovers. Photo by Neal Preston
Not the Brightest Star in the Sky

Lady Gaga shines in the otherwise underwhelming ‘A Star Is Born.’

First-time actor Ben Dickey (with guitar) stars as the titular country songwriter Blaze Foley. Courtesy IFC Films
Down in a ‘Blaze’ of Glory

Writer/director Ethan Hawke aptly portrays Blaze Foley’s never-made-it musical legend.

Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, and Jack Black get their kiddie horror on in The House 
With a Clock in Its Walls. Photo courtesy Storyteller Distribution Co.
Tick, Tick… Boo!

Jack Black and Cate Blanchett can’t prevent the spooky kids’ movie The House with a Clock in Its Walls from feeling a bit insincere.

If you see the poster art for Mandy and are surprised it’s wild, it’s your own damn fault.
Totally Uncaging the Cage

Nicolas Cage taps into his manical best for the acid-trip fantasy revenge film, ‘Mandy.’

Robert Redford says goodbye with The Old Man & the Gun. Photo by Eric Zachanowich/Twentieth Century Fox
Fall Movie Preview 2018

From Oscar hopefuls to broad comedies, here’s what the season’s film slate has to offer.

John Cho logs on to find his missing daughter in Searching. Photo by Sebastian Baron
Social (Media) Thriller

While not escapist fare, Searching ‘s story of a father searching for his daughter online does feel authentically of the internet.

Regina Hall (center) leads the Double Whammies crew in Support the Girls. Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures
Character Meets Cleavage in ‘Support the Girls’

Don’t be fooled by Hooters-esque facade. The Regina Hall-led film is a warm, funny, and communal.

Kelly Macdonald, Irrfan Khan, and director Marc Turtletaub put together the pieces on the set of Puzzle. 
Photo by Linda Kallerus/Sony Pictures Classics
Can ‘Puzzle’ Fit in the New Oscars Landscape?

The understated indie boasts a fabulous performance by Kelly Macdonald, but does that matter in the Best Popular Film era?

Teens bond at a gay conversion camp in The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Photo courtesy Beachside Films
The Conversion Immersion of ‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’

A strong young ensemble helps director Desiree Akhavan artfully takedown conversion therapy.

The ostentatious takes center stage in Generation Wealth. Photo by Lauren Greenfield
Show Me the Money

The documentary ‘Generation Wealth’ attempts to show greed’s shallowness, but somewhat loses focus.