Winslet Spins Familiar Wheel
Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, Scorsese, Eastwood and Spielberg, as well as too many other filmmakers to count, have returned time and again to familiar themes to explore at various points in their careers. It isn’t that they were lazy and simply doing the same old thing, but rather they were examining topics that interested them from the new lens that age and experience affords us. So it is with Woody Allen, a filmmaker obsessed with sex, love and the turmoil it can create. This is the through-line in his work and he’s mined it better than anyone, coming to the definitive answer where relationships are concerned – it’s all a mystery.
His latest, Wonder Wheel will seem familiar – perhaps too much so – for those who’ve watched Allen’s work over the years. An illicit love affair is at its center - a situation that’s fated to end badly – as are a variety of damaged figures, all of who are searching for happiness, unwittingly undercutting each other’s efforts in the process.
Echoes of The Purple Rose of Cairo and Blue Jasmine can be heard throughout the story of Ginny (Kate Winslet), a Coney Island waitress saddled with broken dreams, a troubled son from a previous marriage and a husband, Humpty (Jim Belushi), who fails to meet her needs. Their lives are unremarkable as she waits on cheap patrons and he tends to an often-empty carousel on the boardwalk. However, when Humpty’s daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) ends up on their doorstep, on the lam from her mobster husband who’s intent on killing her, the couple’s routine is forever shattered. However, a single ray of hope appears for Ginny in the form of summer lifeguard and would-be author Mickey (Justin Timberlake), with whom she has a torrid affair. It is the woman’s one refuge, the only thing she looks forward to and brings her joy, but once he lover gets an eyeful of Carolina, well…
What with having Mickey tell the story, Allen not only introduces the notion that we may be under the sway of an unreliable narrator but it prevents Ginny from contributing to her own narrative. This traps her in a narrative sense, which compliments the physical nature of her predicament. Allen utilizes just a very few sets in the film – much of the action taking place in the Ginny and Humpty’s cramped apartment with the titular amusement in the background – which underscores the moored nature of her life. All of this is lit to perfection by the veteran cinematographer Vittorio Storaro who brings a sense of life to the drab surroundings, all of which becomes subtly darker as Ginny’s hopes fade.
Timberlake is out of his depth here, floundering in the shadow of his veteran co-stars, giving one direct, flat line reading after another. Belushi is surprisingly strong as the clueless lug while Temple continues to be a young actress to watch, giving an unexpectedly nuanced performance. Winslet does not shrink from the complexity of her role, and while the character is quite similar to Cate Blanchett’s turn in Blue Jasmine, the actress puts her own mark on it. Her fierce, passionate turn brings forth all that’s right with Wheel as she’s able to make the familiar seem vital.