Wonder Wheel

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday December 1, 2017

Kate Winslet stars in 'Wonder Wheel'
Kate Winslet stars in 'Wonder Wheel'  

As a good dramatist working in any format or platform -- from brimstone-spouting preachers working the old time revival circuit to John Milton, author of "Paradise Lost" -- can tell you, nothing sparks up a tale like a glimpse of Hell. It's a truism that Woody Allen clings to for his newest movie "Wonder Wheel," a hash of cliches and recycled plot elements.

Cloaking the tired tropes from which the film is assembled is fire, symbolizing the runaway passions of the characters; along with fire there's smoke, which wreathes star Kate Winslet at one pivotal moment with all the luxurious comfort of a fur coat. Most of all, however, there's light -- summer sunlight, ruddy neon, and illumination of a golden hue, as though from a furnace. Old time painters reserved such colors for coded references to damnation, and you can't help feeling that Allen's cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro -- the man who drizzled the optical equivalent of foamed milk and cinnamon all over last year's Allen film, "Cafe Society" -- is following in their tradition.

The lighting scheme for "Wonder Wheel" is, if nothing else, overtly theatrical, with light and shadow and richly dyed shades of various colors slanting in through windows, diffusing over the actors, and kaleidoscopically transmuting throughout scenes that throb with equally theatrical over-acting. Standing above the fray and narrating for our benefit is an aspiring playwright, a young fellow named Mickey (Justin Timberlake, a little too old for the part; his wide-eyed schtick doesn't erase the years and make him more age appropriate). Mickey works as a life guard on the beach next to Coney Island, an oasis of thrill rides, carnival attractions, and restaurants where Ginny (Winslet) and her husband Humpty (Jim Belushi) live and labor.

Ginny and Micky have plenty in common. She's a former actress whose unconscious reliance on romantic chaos has sabotaged one marriage and is about to wreck another. Mickey, being obsessed with drama himself, is drawn to her air of perpetual tumult, but he's even more drawn to Humpty's prodigal daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), a young woman fleeing the wrath of the mob. Humpty and Ginny is Carolina's last-ditch effort to save herself; she figures the mob hitmen pursuing her will never look for her in her estranged father's home, and for a while it looks like she might be entirely too correct about that because Humpty's first impulse is to throw her right out again. In the end, his soft heart wins the day and Ginny becomes part of the family.

But Carolina's predicament is of secondary interest to Ginny, whose preoccupations rank as follows: Her headaches, which plague her daily; her new love affair with Mickey, toward whom she is jealously possessive; and her firebug son, Richie (Jack Gore), whose compulsive fascination with flame is as driving and destructive a force as anything the adults are wrestling with.

"Wonder Wheel" is fantastic to look at, and the cast manage to create diverting characters despite Allen's direction, which is seemingly calculated to summon the ghost of Tennessee Williams. (One wonders whether Allen wasn't inspired to tackle this film after adapting William's play "A Streetcar Named Desire" into his Oscar-winning 2013 film "Blue Jasmine.") The production design, costuming, art direction, and CGI re-creations of 1950s Coney Island are all ravishing, rendering the skeletally undernourished story into a framework from which to hang a feast of visual glories. The look of the film also carries it past a frankly tedious selection of old jazz tunes that litter the film's soundtrack.

Allen has fun with a cameo appearance by two "Sopranos" alums, Tony Sirico and Steve Schirripa, playing a couple of hit men in search of Carolina. So do we; Sirico and Schirripa essentially reprise their "Sopranos" personae and transplant them wholesale into a different time. Theirs is a rare and fleeting moment of unbridled playfulness in a movie that's exhaustingly exaggerated from start to finish. Even the occasional classic Woody Allen one-liner sinks beneath the film's sodden dramatics -- which might be the point, the themes of the piece being what they are, but still, sodden is sodden and you can't help missing the light, dry, nimbly acerbic Allen of old.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.