'Wonder Wheel' film review: Winslet shines in Allen's latest
Kate Winslet is pretty much the only reason to check out the latest Woody Allen drama "Wonder Wheel" (playing in select cities Dec. 1). While not among Allen's worst films, this latest entry to his filmography is far from his strongest offering.
In short: The uneventful 1950s life of Coney Island carousel operator Humpty (Jim Belushi) and his wife Ginny (Winslet) is disturbed by the sudden return of his estranged daughter Carolina (Juno Temple), who is on the run from mobsters. Justin Timberlake also stars.
Writer-director Allen's latest plays more like a stage production than a cinematic work. The film introduces a number of unrelated plot threads - including the threat of Humpty's relapse into alcoholism, Carolina's safety as she hides from criminals and her pyromaniac son - none of which are compelling until they all come to a head in the third act. The entirety of this tragedy is an exercise in putting the screws to an unremarkable woman.
Winslet's performance captures the embittered and insecure Ginny - a woman in her late 30s doomed to wait tables and trapped in a loveless marriage despite her dreams of leaving everything behind. She is a volatile engine whose desperation drives the film. Ginny is the focal point of the film's various plot threads, and Winslet elegantly channels a woman who can sharply swing from charming to jealous in a heartbeat.
Allen has gifted Winslet with some well-crafted monologues for Ginny, moments that - when combined with Ginny's increasing despair - reveal her insecurities and fears as Ginny is boxed into a corner. While Allen deserves credit for trapping Ginny in an impossible situation, where her role as a woman, wife and mother all seem hopeless, it is Winslet's performance that gives Ginny frenetic dimension.
"Wheel" undermines Winslet's standout performance by bungling its multiple plot threads. The intent is obvious - Ginny's life as a wife, lover and mother systematically unravel. But "Wheel" doesn't make clear who exactly is supposed to be the main character through the first fifteen minutes, most of which are spent on Humpty and Carolina just lay out pure, painfully dull backstory exposition. The film then awkwardly introduces a mobster threat - which is just as oddly defused and all-but-forgotten ... until it's convenient to dredge back up.
On top of all of this, "Wheel" features a completely unnecessary narration from an supporting character - none of the voice-over adds dimension or color to the film. It's just Timberlake's lifeguard character often describing exactly what is occurring on screen. A more competent screenplay could have lifted all the voiceover out of the script and told the exact same story using less ham-handed storytelling tools.
Final verdict: Winslet's remarkable performance is the only notable draw for an otherwise lackluster Allen film.
"Wonder Wheel" plays in select cities starting Dec. 1, opening in additional cities starting Dec. 8. This drama has a running time of 101 minutes and is rated PG-13 for thematic content including some sexuality, language and smoking.