Write a screenplay. Make a movie. It seems as straightforward as that for Woody Allen and therein perhaps lies the problem. Seemingly with the freedom to make whatever ideas he develops, usually on a miniscule budget and with no studio interference, Allen has churned out at least one film (and sometimes more) every year since winning two Academy Awards for Annie Hall in 1978. The problem is though that Allen, whose every work these days exists in the shadow of the accusations and controversies of his private life, seems to be more occupied with maintaining this level of output than he is with developing his ideas to their fullest potential, which often results in considerable inconsistencies in both the quality of his various productions and individual elements within each film. As such, the quality performers that Allen invariably secures for each of his productions are often hamstrung by moments that suffer, or so it seems at least, from a lack of oversight.
This is very much the case with Wonder Wheel as Allen again mixes some impressive elements (particularly in light of his budget limitations) with some moments that are almost laughable in their execution, largely due to a screenplay that not even the likes of Kate Winslet or Justin Timberlake can elevate to something beyond mediocre. Winslet is Ginny, the put-upon wife of alcoholic Coney Island carousel operator Humpty (James Belushi) with a son whose only interests are, apparently, watching movies and lighting fires, sometimes at the same time. The three live in a small apartment directly behind the Ferris wheel from which the film takes its name. When Humpty’s daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) arrives unannounced after ditching her mobbed-up husband, a frustrated Ginny finds herself falling under the spell of charismatic lifeguard Mickey (Timberlake), who serves as the fourth-wall breaking narrator whose running commentary adds little of consequence. Nothing he says during his several to-camera monologues is particularly insightful with regard to the various characters, the relationships between them and the course of events in which they find themselves embroiled. Rather than adopting the ‘show, don’t tell’ approach to his storytelling, Allen has opted to show AND tell, which becomes somewhat infuriating as the film progresses. If we are going to see it unfold anyway, we don’t need the commentary from Mickey.
When Carolina also finds herself charmed by Mickey, tension mounts between the two women as a hapless Humpty finds himself in the cross hairs oblivious to the goings-on despite everything unfolding quite literally within the confines of Coney Island. In many ways, Humpty can be likened to Ralph Kramden from the 1950’s television sketch comedy The Honeymooners – short tempered, frequently yelling and making hollow threats – but Belushi falls a long way short of making Humpty as likeable as Jackie Gleason does Krampton. In fact, as the film progresses, it becomes impossible to shake the notion that John Goodman in this role might have resulted in a character significantly less simplistic and soporific. It is the distinct lack of nuance in Belushi’s portrayal of Humpty that makes his performance a less than memorable manifestation of a character who, to be fair, is a wholly unremarkable individual.
Allegations of sexual abuse have dogged Allen for years in the aftermath of his marriage to his teenage stepdaughter so when Ginny, in a jealous rage, accuses Humpty of having an ‘unnatural attachment’ to his daughter, you can’t help but cringe a little before you begin to question whether this a conscious act of provocation from the 82 year-old fimmaker, or whether he is simply incapable of seeing how this moment might leave many viewers feeling particularly icky. Far from Allen’s best work, yet still a cut above his worst, Wonder Wheel is beautifully shot at times but the constant transitions between bright colour palettes become a distraction, as if they have been designed specifically to mask the deficiencies in the screenplay and the lack of character development that prevents the film from leaving any lasting impression.