Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Woody Allen

Stars: Kate Winslet, Jim Belushi, Juno Temple, Justin Timberlake, Jack Gore, David Krumholtz, Max Casella, Tony Sirico, Steven Schirripa.

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Woody Allen is a very prolific filmmaker who has averaged one film per year for the past five decades. And while the quality of his output has varied, he has produced a few bona fide classics along the way. He has also been nominated for more Oscars in the screenwriting category than any other filmmaker. And he writes strong roles for females – he has directed six actresses to an Oscar for playing tragic, neurotic and flawed heroines. With his latest film he gives Oscar winner Kate Winslet (Titanic, etc) one of her best roles for quite some time.

In Wonder Wheel, Winslet plays Ginny, a washed-up waitress who works at a clam house diner on the Coney Island boardwalk. She lives in an upstairs apartment in the shadow of the famous Coney Island Wonder Wheel with her brooding husband Humpty (Jim Belushi), who operates a carousel in the amusement park. This is the second marriage for both, but one senses that it is an unhappy one. Ginny fantasises about a way out.

Ginny has a son Richie (Jack Gore), who is a budding arsonist, which may have psychological ramifications somewhere down the boardwalk in the not too distant future. Ginny embarks on an affair with Mickey Rubin (Justin Timberlake), a handsome, smooth talking lifeguard and aspiring writer who narrates the tale from his perspective. Ginny thinks that Mickey will be her way out of her mundane existence. Mickey is not the usual neurotic Allen surrogate but someone far more confident and aware of his place in this environment.

Humpty also has a daughter named Carolina (Juno Temple) from his first marriage. He is estranged from her though ever since she married Frank, a New York mobster. But then Carolina turns up, seeking temporary residence. It turns out she has left her husband and is on the run from the mob. But when Mickey’s attentions turn towards the younger and more vibrant Carolina the resulting love triangle sets the scene for some palpable tension within the already tumultuous household.

The selfish and unhappy Ginny is very much a tragic heroine in the Tennessee Williams mould, and Winslet gives an emotional and strong performance. She has rarely been better than here as a desperate damsel in distress who is ultimately the architect of her own downfall. Belushi has his best role for quite some time as the oafish, alcoholic, abusive and deeply unsympathetic Humpty, who sports his wife beater singlet almost like a second skin. Temple also stamps herself as a talent to watch with her take on the blowsy bimbo type here. She brings depth and layers to the character beyond what was on the page.

In an interesting piece of casting, Tony Sirico and Steven Schirripa (both from the tv series The Sopranos) have small roles as thuggish gangsters who come to Coney Island looking for Carolina, but they really leave little impression on the material.

Wonder Wheel covers familiar territory for Allen. Like a lot of his latter-day output, this is a dark melodrama about faded dreams, desperation and unhappy lives, and the subtext seems to draw on his own personal life for inspiration. As usual, Allen’s dialogue is very articulate, but it relies too much on lengthy exposition and lacks the pithy one-liners and insights. Timberlake’s narration breaks the fourth wall regularly – “I relish melodrama and large than life characters,” he announces. While this is a much darker romantic melodrama, it is tempered with a few touches of humour. With the claustrophobic staging of the scenes inside the cramped apartment though the mise en scene seems very theatrical in nature, almost as if Allen is paying homage to the dramatists of the 50s, giants of the theatre like Williams, Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller.

The film is set in the 1950s and is steeped in nostalgia. Wonder Wheel is first and foremost a loving ode to the Coney Island of Allen’s youth. It looks superb thanks to the gorgeous widescreen cinematography of Oscar winner Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, etc) who captures the tawdry glitz and fading glamour of this iconic amusement park and the ambience of the post-WWII Coney Island setting. Working with one of his biggest budgets to date, this is one of the best-looking films in Allen’s long career. The lush production design from regular collaborator Santo Loquasto is impeccable and authentic, heavily steeped in the period aesthetic. The costumes from regular designer Suzy Benzinger also perfectly evoke the era. The soundtrack is heavily infused with smooth jazz standards from the era, and further adds to the atmosphere.

Wonder Wheel may not be remembered as one of Allen’s best films, but even subpar Allen is better than the output from most other contemporaries.


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