Woody Allen has been here before. Not just with certain plot ideas and themes, like the ups and downs of love and marriage. He had a previous film set in the same location. The title here refers to the big Ferris wheel on Coney Island, which can be seen slowly turning outside the windows of the home where Humpty (Jim Belushi), a ride operator, and his wife Ginny (Kate Winslet), a waitress, live. During a flashback in “Annie Hall,” Alvy Singer’s family is living under the roller coaster at Coney Island in the 1940s. In the memorable scene of young Alvy being pestered by his uncle, Joey Nichols, the Wonder Wheel, or at least a large Ferris wheel, can be seen turning outside a window of their home.
“Wonder Wheel’s” events happen there in the 1950s, when the place was still popular, but starting to go to seed. Another favorite Woody Allen topic — the dysfunctional family — takes root immediately. Carolina (Juno Temple), the adult daughter of Humpty, comes home after a long absence, which included marriage to a gangster named Frank. She’s run away from him, is broke, and hopes to hide out in her estranged dad’s place (Ginny is not her mom; she’s Humpty’s second wife) because she’s afraid that Frank will send his goons after her. But there’s a reason she’s been away so long, summed up in her dad’s first words when he sees her: “What the hell are YOU doing here?”
That would probably be enough to set a Woody Allen romp in motion. But this, while having some funny moments, is no romp. Neither is it one of his straightforward serious scripts. Nor is it, unfortunately, one of his best films. But his fans will go for it. The strongest reasons to see it are that he still tells a good story, and the cinematography, by the legendary Vittorio Storaro (“Apocalypse Now,” “The Sheltering Sky,” Woody’s “Café Society”), with its rich palette of colors, crystal clarity, and astounding depth of field, is of Oscar quality.
A little context: Mickey (Justin Timberlake) is a college student, part-time lifeguard, and aspiring playwright, as well as the film’s narrator, who eventually becomes part of the story. The five-year marriage of Humpty and Ginny hasn’t been all that smooth, but it came at a time when each needed a boost in life, and even through the constant squabbling, they’ve been dependent on each other for solace.
Then there are complications. Mickey, staring right at the camera, speaking to us, says he’s having an affair with Ginny. Humpty has no clue. Carolina, who Humpty eventually accepts in his home, but who Ginny doesn’t really want around, gets a job as a waitress where Ginny works. A coincidental meeting between Mickey and Carolina results in her, knowing nothing about the affair, telling Ginny about how well she and Mickey got along. Oops!
In true Woody Allen fashion, there’s a lot more happening, much of it not necessary. Flashbacks clear things up that don’t need clearing up. One character, who’s a pyromaniac, is simply a distraction. Something that’s not usually seen in an Allen film is acting that’s off the mark. Belushi is overdoing his anger near the beginning, then calms down too much later on. His character needs some middle ground behavior. Timberlake is shaky is his line delivery and general performance. But there’s no problem with the women in the film. Temple is convincing as a person who’s frightened by her past but ambitious about her future, and Winslet is even better as someone who’s unhappy with her life and situation, and keeps struggling to find a better path. Some of the best scenes are of Ginny and Carolina talking to each other, with mixed messages of conflict going back and forth between them.
Some tension is added when Carolina’s fears come true, and a couple of thugs come looking for her. That’s all assuaged as soon as they go away, unsuccessful in their search. But if you know how Woody Allen writes, you also know that their brief appearance falls under the category of foreshadowing. This is pretty good Woody. Too bad it’s not one of his great ones. But it’s still better than most of what else is at our cinemas today.
— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written and directed by Woody Allen
With Jim Belushi, Kate Winslet, Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple