At the beginning of Woody Allen’s new film, Wonder Wheel, Justin Timberlake’s character muses through narration on the state of Coney Island – how it was once a glittering jewel of America but now seems seedy and decrepit. I couldn’t help feeling that makes for an accurate description of Allen himself, who has released at least one new film every year since 1982. While early films like Annie Hall and Manhattan are recognised as iconic and innovative pieces of American cinema, it’s harder and harder to appreciate the filmmaker’s works in light of highly public sexual assault cases and his uncomfortable personal life, particularly in the Post-Weinstein “Me Too” era. Perhaps it’s time for Allen to step away from the camera.
Yet until he does people will keep seeing his films, so I’ll try to consider Wonder Wheel on its own merits. Kate Winslet plays Ginny Randell, a waitress working in Coney Island who’s unhappily married and having an affair with Micky Rubin (Timberlake), a lifeguard. When her husband’s daughter, Carolina, comes to them for help escaping her mobster fiancé and his goons, Ginny begins to go through a mid-life crisis as she becomes increasingly threatened by Carolina’s interest in Micky and the opportunities offered to her that Ginny feels she missed out on. Allen’s scripts are famous for their dialogue and there’s plenty of it in Wonder Wheel – indeed, at times I felt like I was watching more of a play than a film as characters bustle through the sets in unbroken takes, performing their lines to an unseen audience rather than each other. Winslet in particular seems to be struggling with this – she’s an extraordinary actress who has plenty of lengthy emotional monologues to deliver, but her performance is hampered by Allen giving her little to hold onto or connect with. Many of Ginny’s most personal revelations are shot with just Winslet on screen, cutting back to other actors after she’s finished talking, so it often feels as though she’s just talking to herself. Allen has assembled a fine cast of character actors but rarely allows them to interact with each other, so they feel self-contained and isolated. Only Juno Temple as Carolina and, surprisingly, Timberlake manage to make it work. Temple is flawless as the wide-eyed yet scarred ingénue, and hopefully this role will serve as a stepping stone to more leading parts in the future, and while Timberlake’s acting abilities aren’t quite up to the same standards as some of his co-stars he approaches his part with such unbridled enthusiasm that I was more drawn to his character than nearly any other.
Famed cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who also worked on Allen’s last picture Café Society, fills the film with lush, rich colours. The neon coloured lights of Coney Island are reflected on the characters’ faces, shifting tones and intensity as scenes progress, but while it looks stunning it never seems to be done with any real purpose. I was never quite sure what the purpose of Wonder Wheel was at all, to be honest. The script lacks Allen’s famous wit, the romance feels shallow and empty, and the characters are too melodramatic for the drama to have any lasting effect. There is a strong sense of nostalgia throughout the film within the soundtrack and the 1950s setting, but Allen doesn’t seem to be making any real point about the past – just living in it.