“Wonder Wheel”


            It's Woody Allen, so you know a couple of things before you begin:  one, there's going to be a halting, sometimes sttutering kind of cadence to the dialgoue, you know, like Woody talks.  Two, there's going to be a nostalgic element, and it's going to persist.  An old recording of “Coney Island Washboard Roundelay,” by the Mills Brothers, lends a ragtime whimsy to the convoluted people proceedings.

            “Wonder Wheel” is the name of the big ferris wheel on Coney Island.  It's sometime in the 1950's.  Coney Island is still crowded with summer vacationers, but it's starting to get seedy.

            Mickey (Justin Timberlake) is a lifeguard there, and also the narrator, so his voiceovers abound.  He tells us he wants to be a writer, which means he's a romantic.  So he has no problem showing interest in a pretty woman he sees walking along the beach, even if he knows she looks a little depressed, and a lot vulnerable (right on both counts).

            Ginny (Kate Winslet) is in an unhappy marriage with Humpty (Jim Belushi).  Her son from a previous marriage, Richie (Jack Gore) drives them both nuts, because all he wants to do is go to movies.  And set fires.  His grown daughter from a previous marriage, Carolina (Juno Temple), shows up unexpectedly one day, and sets off an emotional firestorm.  Humpty had told her not to marry that gangster.  She said she was young and in love.  He told her not to come back.  She said after five years, she has no place else to go.  And besides, the Mob is looking for her.

            So Ginny finds her a job at the Crab restaurant where she works as a waitress, and Humpty, the attendant at the carousel, keeps saying Carolina has a college education, she's too good to be a waitress, which doesn't make Ginny feel great about herself, but then, she already feels guilty because she knows she broke up her first marriage because she had an affair, and now she's having a fling with the lifeguard, Mickey.

            They meet up on rainy days, when he doesn't have to work, and business is slow at the restaurant, anyway.  She starts to tell Mickey that she's in love, and wants to run away with him.  This scares him.  All he wanted was a little summer fun.  And then, when he meets Carolina, he finds he's attracted to her, as well.

            Kate Winslet delivers a finely nuanced performance as the middle-aged mess whose dreams have all gone awry.  Belushi's ranting is some mashup of Marlon Brando and Ralph Kramden, but he fails to convince us that he's a loveable loser; only an angry drunk.

            And all this melodrama is interspersed by more nostalgic, romantic music:  “You Belong To Me,” “Harbor Lights”----emphasizing the contrasting existential angst of nobody quite being able to find what they want, even though everyone is so desperately needy. 

            Yes, Woody Allen will give us some stark lighting contrasts and off-kilter camera angles, just to set a mood.  But since there are really no likeable characters here, it's hard to root for them, even if they do find themselves without pleasant options.  Sometimes existential angst is just a fancy term for downright depressing.


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association