There is much to love in Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel, from the breathtaking costumes and cinematography, to the nostalgia of Coney Island and 1950s New York, to Allen’s recurring and relentless appreciation of movies as an escape from real life. There is so much color in Vittorio Storaro’s images, so many bright things in Santo Loquasto’s production design, and so much false hope thrown at you, frame after frame, as the story barrels towards its inevitable end that it plays like a dream of a Woody Allen movie. It’s a collection of everything we know and love about him, places familiar to us through his eyes, archetypes he’s built a career on all thrown together in a surreal melodrama.
We’re watching theater — good theater, bad theater, it’s sometimes hard to tell — but the aesthetic of that framing is made clear by the stage lighting and the occasional breaking of the fourth wall by one of the stars, Justin Timberlake. If you’re familiar with Woody Allen’s more serious movies you know where this one is going. Tragic women who love too much, whose emotions topple them over, surrounded by disappointing men and failed ambition. Allen loves the tragic, wilting, neurotic female — and we love watching actresses tackle these roles he invents for them, custom-tailored to their talents. Judy Davis in Husbands and Wives, Charlotte Rampling in Stardust Memories, Sandy Dennis in Another Woman, Anjelica Huston in Crimes and Misdemeanors, Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine and now, Kate Winslet in Wonder Wheel.
Winslet plays Ginny, a textbook “desperate woman” struggling to hold her life together, waitressing, keeping her husband (Jim Belushi) sober so he won’t hit her, trying to keep her small red-headed son out of trouble. He likes to start fires. In walks Carolina (Juno Temple) who was born to wear the costumes of this era, on the run from the mob, arriving to upset the apple cart despite her best intentions. The film has a closed-in feeling, never venturing much farther than Ginny’s home and the few places she can go to escape her troubles to be with her lover (Timberlake). The cozy sensation of inhabiting a stage play seems perfectly suited for these melodramas, and then we are swept up in moments that feel bigger than life, when legendary Storaro’s jaw-dropping cinematography and Suzy Benzinger’s unbelievable costumes take our breath away.
Winslet is, of course, magnificent as Ginny. Even confined inside the Woody Allen mold of neurotic, humiliated woman she finds ways to soar. Her Ginny not all that far off her Mildred Pierce character except minus the lofty and selfless dignity. Ginny does the best she can but all she really wants is out of the life where she’s found herself stuck. It’s a treat to watch her burn up the screen, as it is to watch Temple play the plucky ingénue. Timberlake and Belushi gamely fling themselves into the fray but they are really no match for these women.
Despite some confounding stumbles, I found Wonder Wheel oddly fascinating and enjoyable, even if Winslet is a tragic version of more heroic women who dominate this year’s Oscar race. But that’s the kind of story this is. Ginny destiny has taken a wrong turn from which there is little recourse. Woody Allen is a firm believer in luck — good luck and bad luck — but it’s clear early on that Ginny’s and Carolina’s luck has mostly run out.
If you’re hoping for an Oscar juggernaut you’re not going to find it here, except perhaps in the visual crafts categories. But that’s certainly no reason to skip it. When you have this much talent assembled to create a world this unbelievably beautiful and surreal, it’s a trip that must be taken, no matter if the rides have stopped running by the time that we arrive.