“Men can’t be trusted”, says Kate Winslet, in one of her best performances in more than a decade. Under a different director, reading that wouldn’t be as uncomfortable, but only prolific writer-director Woody Allen could mistakenly emphasize such a line within these circumstances and still perform a miracle that is ‘Wonder Wheel’.
In the lush, colourful setting of 1950’s Coney Island, sad waitress Ginny lives a dysfunctional family life where love and betrayal collide like unhinged roller coasters. On one hand, she meets a young and charismatic playwright who sparks love back into her life. And on the other, she’s married to the wrong man, while also taking care of two chaotic children. It’s a big story for a small island.
Of course, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Comparisons to Allen’s previous work on ‘Blue Jasmine’ are expected, and, as always, each of the main protagonists exist as a different version of Woody Allen himself, only in another universe. But, ‘Wonder Wheel’ is certainly the most assured he’s ever felt, improving on many of his own staples: smooth jazz, vivid colours, hardcore melodrama, and larger-than-life characters. It makes for a very exciting and emotional roller coaster and those, typically, are the best kind.
Kate Winslet plays the beleaguered middle-aged wife who’s tragic flaw can burn any type of love to the ground. Her relationship with her husband, Harold ‘Humpty’, is explosive and unpredictable, allowing both actors (Winslet and Belushi) to equally shine in their most emotionally resonant performances in years. Ginny is also challenged by her son’s destructive nature in literally watching things burn. And, lastly, her daughter is marked by her ex-husband’s gang. What could possibly go wrong?
As Ginny begins to fall apart, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro shifts gears and transforms the poetic photography into a thrilling chase for the truth. In ‘Wonder Wheel’s’ final act, for example, Allen’s sharp dialogue is complemented by the fast-moving energy of the camera. It adds a new level of feeling that is, as described by a side character, Jake Jacoby ‘Mickey’s Friend’, “playing in a whole other ballpark”. It proves the relationship between Allen and Storaro has shaped into a masterful pairing since they shot the ‘Life Without Zoe’ segment on ‘New York Stories’ all the way back in 1989.
Since 1989, however, we’ve learned two things: We can’t trust Woody Allen with everything, but we can certainly trust him to make a good movie. ‘Wonder Wheel’, in this case, it told with such a striking awareness of its own tone and characters that even if it were one of his last films—assuming Hollywood disowns him still— that would be okay because it’s just that wonderful.
Hunter’s Rating: 7.9/10
Directed by: Woody Allen
Starring: Kate Winslet, Jim Belushi, Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple, Max Casella.