- Colin Fraser
THREE STARS Despair follows a married woman whose young beau falls for her step-daughter
Starring Kate Winslet, Justin Timberlake
PERIOD DRAMA #WONDERWHEEL
To paraphrase learned critic Julian Wood, Allen needs to slow down. Churning out a film every year to satisfy some deep-seated neurosis does his creative standing no good. By taking time to nurture each project into a fully realised film, rather than making do with a grab bag of half formed ideas he’s persevered with over the last decade (perhaps longer), we’d have more BLUE JASMINE and a lot less WONDER WHEEL. Not that this is a disaster by any means, yet by creaking its way through underwritten ideas to an unsatisfying conclusion leaves too much space to ponder what could have been. Take your time Woody, take your time.
Essentially a dusted-off stage play, WONDER WHEEL is set in the faded glory of Coney Island, circa 1950. Put-upon Ginny (an on-form Kate Winslet) works at the pleasure pier’s diner, cares for a son by her first marriage and suffers through a second marriage to her mostly-caring husband Humpty (Jim Belushi). He’s recently reconnected with his adult daughter Carolina, who now works alongside Harriet. The prickly relationships are further complicated because Carolina is on the run from her gangster husband, and has recently caught the eye of a local, now compromised, lifeguard Mickey (Justin Timberlake) who’s in an adulterous relationship with Ginny.
It’s a dark and sordid space, this place below the Wonder Wheel. Everyone wants to be someone they’re not – notably Ginny (not married to Humpty), Mickey (who wants to be a playwright), and perhaps Woody who wants to be Eugene O’Neil (often referenced in a script soaked with alcohol – Winslet goes full-Elizabeth-Taylor in one of the film’s best scenes). It often makes for provocative viewing, even if those scenes serve to underline the paucity of those that butt up against them. Further stretching our tolerance is Mickey’s awkward and unnecessary breaking of the fourth wall to narrate the film instead of letting transitions and back-story develop organically (see above re bad ideas and editing).
Fortunately, Allen’s long-time DoP is on hand to bath the story in resonant colours that become informative characters in their own right. Likewise Winslet who gets to do some resonant work of her own as a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Jasmine-lite certainly, but captivating all the same. There are many eye-catching elements and challenging aspects to WONDER WHEEL but they remain only that, elements and aspects: the glue holding them together dries out before the final reel, leaving behind pieces of a dream. Rather like Coney Island. Or Ginny’s own life. Ironic really.