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'Wonder Wheel' Film Review: Woody Allen's latest underwhelms

December 8, 2017Siobhán Finn

In the waning twilight of Coney Island's heyday, would-be playwright Mickey (Justin Timberlake) works as a lifeguard on Beach 7, where he meets and falls for an older, married woman who entangles him in the drama of her life. With the amusement park's famous Wonder Wheel in the background, Mickey serves as narrator as he guides the audience through writer/director Woody Allen's tale about the perfidy of women.

After giving the police evidence about her ex-husband's mob ties, Carolina (Juno Temple) returns to her estranged father's care, hoping he will keep her safe. Before she can reunite with him, she finds Ginny (Kate Winslet), her father's new wife, a hard-working, 39-year-old woman whose dreams of being an actress were curtailed after the birth of her pyromaniac son, Ritchie. With the mob after Carolina, Ginny and Humpty (Jim Belushi) reluctantly agree to let her live with them in their apartment above the shooting gallery. Ginny's insecurities about her age come to the forefront when her lover starts falling for her doppelgänger stepdaughter.

The extensive use of close-ups gives the audience ample time to truly evaluate the cast's performances, which does not bode well for all involved. Timberlake's performance in particular does not hold up to the scrutiny of Allen's microscope, as Mickey's aw-shucks Midwestern veneer grows thinner which each successive narrative aside. While many will focus on Belushi's fine performance as the poor man's John Goodman or Winslet's slowly declining Joan Crawford, it is Temple upon whom the movie's charm truly rests. Her balance of ingénue and principled seductress ranks among the best of Allen's leading ladies.

It is difficult to say the name Woody Allen without the accompanying baggage immediately springing to mind, and Wonder Wheel does little to help his already problematic image. Among the more uncomfortable issues is the character of Humpty, who, prior to his eventual martyrdom, is accused on more than one occasion of liking his daughter more than is appropriate, as well as the demonization of women — Ginny, in particular. Setting aside Allen's history, the constant misogyny and awkwardness of these relationships make Wonder Wheel a difficult movie to admire.

Allen is quick to condemn and punish both of his female leads for their betrayals of the men in their lives. The archetype of the faithless woman is played up both in Ginny's infidelity during her two marriages and in Carolina's betrayal of her husband to the police. The audience is repeatedly reminded of these actions, which are presented as reasons the women are undeserving of love, and as justification for their eventual downfalls.

Like most Woody Allen movies, Wonder Wheel is beautifully shot. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who also shot Café Society, returns behind the camera, giving the movie the familiar Allen aesthetic combined with a warmth befitting the 1950s setting. The use of lighting is also key, as the amusement park's neon lights are used to reflect changes in mood and tension throughout the film.

From the hallways of Congress to Hollywood casting couches, it can seem like news stories about the misbehavior of men in positions of power are everywhere. It is therefore difficult to recommend a movie that attempts to justify violence against women as a deserved consequence for bad actions. Are good performances enough to overshadow the misogyny of "body language that reads troubled and desperate" or fathers being "dumped" by their daughters? That is for the final box office numbers to determine.

Wonder Wheel releases December 8th, 2017 from Mongrel Media. The film has an MPAA rating of PG-13 for thematic content including some sexuality, language and smoking. Its runtime is 1 hr. 41 min.

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