The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Wonder Wheel

In a multi-decade career that contains masterpieces (Annie Hall, Crimes and Misdemeanors), missteps (Anything Else, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger), and everything in between, Wonder Wheel has to go down as Woody Allen's most unpleasant film. His attempt to work in the style of playwright Eugene O'Neill – who even gets a mention in one scene, lest anyone fail to grasp the homage – produces a dull story full of unlikable characters we can't wait to get away from. Allen is certainly capable of making a good dramatic picture; he just gets some fundamental things wrong this time.

The story takes place in and around Coney Island during the 1950s. Kate Winselt plays Ginny, a waitress married to occasionally-abusive drunk Humpty (Jim Belushi). Their already-strained relationship is pushed to the brink when Humpty's estranged daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) shows up unexpectedly. She's just ratted on her mobster husband and needs someplace to hide from his goons. Humpty sees this as a chance to repair things between them. But Ginny feels left out, sending her into the arms of a young playboy lifeguard, Mickey (Justin Timberlake). They have a fling. Then Mickey meets Carolina and things play out pretty predictably from there.

There's an age-old question of whether you can separate the art from the artist. Watching Wonder Wheel, it's hard not to see parallels to Woody Allen's own life and the controversy surrounding his marriage to Soon-Yi Previn. The movie contains a father overly invested in his own daughter, a wife who's none too happy about that, and another guy who has to decide whether he wants to be with the mature older woman or the naive younger one. Mickey even utters a line of dialogue – ”The heart has its own hieroglyphics” – that echoes Allen's notorious ”the heart wants what it wants” justification of marrying the woman who was, essentially, his own adopted daughter.

A filmmaker processing personal issues through his work is perfectly acceptable. In fact, Allen has done it repeatedly over the years. The difference is that Wonder Wheel doesn't provide any insight into those issues. He asks us to follow these people through their misery without offering any kind of perspective on the things they're dealing with – or his own agonies, for that matter. It's just 101 minutes of wallowing in the unhappiness of people who are stupidly responsible for their own problems.

Allen also gets a little lazy in some areas, taking distracting shortcuts. For instance, when two mobsters come looking for Carolina, they're played by Steve Schirripa and Tony Sirico – two actors incredibly well-known to anyone who ever watched The Sopranos. Aside from taking viewers out of the story by calling attention to the reunion of these two performers from a beloved series, the casting choice is so obvious that any real threat to Carolina is undermined.

Winslet and Timberlake are, to be fair, quite good in their roles, as is Belushi (although he's saddled with a one-note blustery character). Temple, on the other hand, proves bland and unmemorable. Then again, that's probably more Allen's fault than hers, as he fails to write Carolina with anything resembling a personality.

Plenty of good movies have focused on characters who are difficult to like going through things that are painful to watch. Wonder Wheel simply doesn't find the humanity in its inhabitants, which makes us want to run screaming from them rather than making us care about what happens to them. The arrival of the film's end credits brings a sigh of relief.

( 1/2 out of four)

Wonder Wheel is rated PG-13 for thematic content including some sexuality, language and smoking. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.

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