Nostalgia films can be magical. To be transported back in time to a bygone era is one of the finest tricks of cinema, and when pulled off effectively can evoke feelings about a time in history that simply can’t be executed as poignantly in other artistic mediums. You get to behold scenes and locations in motion that would otherwise be relegated to still photography or archival footage. Obviously, in the 20th century there were films made that captured the time frame in which they were filmed, but films made after the fact as period pieces tend to accentuate the characteristics that, in hindsight, loom large in the memory of people who lived the era and the imaginations of those who were born too late. While there are many films that manage to capture that special brand of lightening in a bottle, there are a plethora of efforts that just miss the mark. Though Woody Allen tries to harness the magic of 50’s era Coney Island in his new drama WONDER WHEEL, sadly his effort falls in the latter category.
The film opens with a terrific wide shot of a packed 1950’s Coney Island beach with the famous boardwalk and amusements looming in the background. As the shot slowly zooms in, we discover that the narration accompanying the vibrant sights belongs to an on duty lifeguard perched atop his stand high above the throng of beach goers. Completely breaking the fourth wall in the usual style Allen has employed numerous times over the decades, the narrator sets up the story of Carolina, a twenty something searching the boardwalk for her long lost father. Once reunited, she is soon acquainted with Ginny, her new step mom, who is less than thrilled to take on the sweet, but spoiled, troublemaker who has been estranged from her father since her mother’s death. To further complicate matters, Carolina seems to be in a bit of trouble and is running away from a bad relationship with a bad guy- who may or may not have henchmen on the lookout for her. As soon as this storyline is established, however, the narrative shifts to Ginny- a former stage actress who- due to some unfortunate decisions in her heyday- has been relegated to slinging hash at a boardwalk tourist trap while stuck in a loveless marriage. When a new opportunity on the romance front sparks her passion, it unfortunately also reignites some of the past demons she never had a chance to fight.
Though the overall story in WONDER WHEEL is quite compelling, something in the delivery just isn’t quite right. For example, Allen’s version of 1950’s Coney Island is a vibrant technicolor nostalgia-filled spectacle that at first almost gave me a Wes Anderson vibe (good thing). But as the picture progressed, some of the sets and locations started to take on a more Disney-like prefab facade quality that made some scenes look almost like a BBC teleplay (bad thing?). And maybe Allen is actually going for a stage feel because during more than one monologue, harsh and sometimes incongruous lighting on an actor would shift and change throughout the delivery, which I imagine was meant to be evocative rather than the distracting. On the stage, WONDER WHEEL would likely be an effective three act play, but the cinematic version feels like something was lost in translation.
If there were any saving grace of WONDER WHEEL, it is incredible performances. Kate Winslet as Ginny is ferociously poignant as the deeply flawed has-been who just keeps digging her own hole deeper. Allen loves himself a good ‘ol female breakdown and Winslett does not disappoint as the conflicted protagonist. And then there’s Jim where-the-heck-have-you-been Belushi as the protective papa of a grown daughter on whom he dotes maybe a bit too much. Belushi nails the desperation of a father whose devotion goes against his better judgement. Though he is definitely more Ralph Kramden than Ward Cleaver, Belushi’s portrayal also shows the vulnerable side of an otherwise stereotypical blue collar man’s man. Sadly, Justin Timberlake just wasn’t as convincing as the narrator/life guard Mickey- who becomes an integral player in the storyline. Believe me, nobody wants “Justin Timberlake the actor” to happen more than me, but I’m still waiting for that role that completely seals the deal. He’s not bad in this outing- in fact he’s quite charming, but somehow, like the film itself, he just doesn’t quite hit the mark. It’s like Ricky Nelson in RIO BRAVO- I like him, I just don’t believe him. Maybe he’s TOO charismatic to completely disappear into a character, I dunno. Maybe it’s just an unfortunate predicament for musicians-turned-actors whose reputations precede them. Whatever the case, as long as JT keeps showing up, I’ll keep giving him a chance.
So even though WONDER WHEEL isn’t quite the film I wished it to be, I did find certain elements enjoyable. The story is a classically bittersweet Woody Allen unrequited love drama with flawed human nature on full display in all its angsty glory. Though some moments teeter dangerously close to the melodramatic, keenly raw performances by most of the main players saves the film from crossing over into eye rolling territory. All things considered, though, even the gravity of good storytelling and heroic acting skill just doesn’t catapult this outing past ho hum.
Until next time,
aka Annette Kellerman