Cinematic Releases: Wonder Wheel (2017) - Reviewed

Adorned with pearls, a rhinestone tiara and wearing her best dress, Blanche DuBois, played by Vivien Leigh, gave her now infamous monologue in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). In it she proclaims to an increasingly irritated Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando), “Physical beauty is passing - a transitory possession. But beauty of the mind, richness of the spirit, tenderness of the heart - I have all those things - aren't taken away but grow! Increase with the years! Oh! Strange that I should be called a destitute woman when I have all these treasures locked in my heart.” 

Cinema is no stranger to capitalizing on the myth of female hysteria. Especially the supposed hysteria centered on the aging and love-starved woman. Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction (1987) is an obvious example. Woody Allen’s latest film Wonder Wheel is no exception to this. In a massive departure from characters like Annie Hall, Wonder Wheel’s Ginny, played by Kate Winslet, has all the stereotypical hysterical female characteristics. And Just like in Blue Jasmine, Allen borrows from Blanche DuBois in the construction of his female lead. 

Set in the Coney Island of the 1950’s, Wonder Wheel is the story of has-been actress Ginny and her alcoholic husband Humpty (Jim Belushi) who are forced to take in Humpty’s daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) because she is on the run from the mob. Ginny and Carolina soon form a love triangle with the young lifeguard Mickey (Justin Timberlake) and his creepy big-eye stare resembling those Precious Moments dolls adorned by creepy aunts and grandmothers. And just like those dolls, Timberlake’s eyes should return to the only place they should ever be seen: Your grandmother’s dusty curio cabinet sitting in the corner of her dimly lit, 1970’s living room. 

For the record, I do not have a problem with Justin Timberlake’s eyes in general. It is just the way that Woody Allen has filmed them that makes them horrible and creepy. They are honestly the least horrible part of this film. Jim Belushi’s character Humpty is such a caricature that it feels like you are watching Fred Flintstone share a memory of “that time he worked at Coney Island”. Carolina’s backstory is weak and cliché at best and Mickey’s unnecessary narration only serves to confuse the audience as to which character the story Wonder Wheel belongs. All of this topped off with a cheap version of Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois (part 2) is enough to make any normal lover of Woody Allen’s films wonder if the guy has finally lost his touch. 

In reality, women lead complex lives. Characters like Claire Underwood in Beau Willimon’s House of Cards, Dorothea Fields in Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women (2016), and Frances in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2012) have demonstrated that male directors and producers are capable of successfully transferring female complexity to the big screen. Allen himself has done it with Annie Hall (1977). Some might point to Woody Allen’s personal sex scandal as a reason for Wonder Wheel’s failure. However, I feel this to be a poor excuse, because if true, Allen’s life as a predator would be almost as long as his life as a writer/director. And it is not like we haven’t seen excellent work out of him during those years. In the end, I think the failure of Wonder Wheel comes down to plain old laziness and lack of creativity. 

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-Dawn Marie