They say life often imitates art, and writer / director Woody Allen is embracing a burst of creativity as he goes to the dark side in “Wonder Wheel,” his tale of violence, passion and betrayal in 1950s Coney Island. This tragic, visually striking melodrama feels like a reflection of the director’s transitional period of his own, a reminder of how we all get older and eventually just fade away.
The film tells the story of former actress turned clam house waitress Ginny (Kate Winslet), an emotionally unstable drama queen who clings to the memory of her faded career with every breath in her body. She suffers through life with drunk and physically abusive second husband Humpty (Jim Belushi) and her disturbed pyromaniac son (Jack Gore).
Out of boredom and general melancholia, Ginny strikes up a passionate love affair with handsome young lifeguard Mickey (Justin Timberlake). But when Humpty’s beautiful daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) shows up to beg for a safe place to hide out from her gangster husband, it becomes a tug of war between the two women over a mutual infatuation with Mickey — a blinding passion that manifests as a false hope of lifelong love.
The actors are all good, especially considering that there’s nary a likeable character in the bunch. Let me rephrase that — the actors are good if you think of the film as a stage play. Allen is a great director, one with a gift for coaxing arresting performances out of his cast, but the general feel of everyone playing to the balcony becomes too distracting. At first I thought this must be on purpose but halfway into the film, I realized this wasn’t the case.
Timberlake seems ill at ease serving as the narrator of the story and addressing the audience directly with equally flat dialogue. It’s clear why Allen chose this route, but it makes the story feel even more like it was better suited to the Broadway stage rather than a film.
The same goes for Winslet. She plays a devastating character but her performance is too histrionic and stagy to be effective. Pairing her shrill and hysterical rendition with the calculated script and direction lends a cheap soap opera atmosphere.
Allen has a lot to say, including the unwelcome stings of aging and the despair of being trapped with no easy escape route, and he’s at his best when he focuses on the somber elements of his story. Ginny has her fantasy world ripped from her fingers as the harshness of her reality sets in. In its closing moments, Winslet delivers a soul-crushing monologue about the fallacy of marriage that showcases Allen’s showy yet piercing writing, but it also feels like Oscar baiting 101.
It’s too bad that the film crumbles in its general artificiality. The period-appropriate cinematography (by the master, Vittorio Storaro) is glorious, but it, too is burdened with too many fanciful digitized backdrops, bright pastel costumes, grand sets, and the biggest sin of all: the overly theatrical performances from the cast.
Allen seems to think that his audience needs more hand holding, something that’s especially irritating when it comes from a director who has had such a illustrious film career that he should know better. He states the obvious with repeated shots of the giant Wonder Wheel spinning outside Ginny’s window. So much for subtle metaphors.