Wonder Wheel

Dec 12, 2017

Woody does well with the Wheel.

Wonder Wheel

Grade: A-

Director: Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris)

Screenplay: Allen

Cast: Jim Belushi (The Ghost Writer), Kate Winslet (Titanic)

Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 1 hr 41 min

by John DeSando

“The heart has its own hieroglyphics.” Mickey (Justin Timberlake)

Wonder Wheel is a wonder of despair juxtaposed with the cheap nostalgia and common lyricism evoked by its 1950’s Coney Island setting. Ginny (Kate Winslet) is trapped in a loveless marriage with a Ralph Kramden-like carney, Humpty (Jim Belushi). Indeed, their lives are destined to come tumbling down.

In tragic fashion, Ginny is having an affair with lifeguard Mickey, who eventually falls for her step daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple). Given that Humpty wears wife beaters with a penchant to beat Ginny up, the tragic conclusions seem inevitable. True to an extent, but what writer/director Woody Allen seems to be after goes beyond the cliché into a realm of despair over bad choices and unshakeable fate, where outside forces take over once they are ignited by the principals’ decisions.

As if the foolishness of  Ginny’s  cougar relationship were not enough to spark tragedy, Carolina is pursued by the mob, an avenging force hardly to be stopped by minor characters on a boardwalk.  None of this melodrama is excitingly different from many black and white TV dramas of the fifties or Allen’s own Manhattan, etc., yet Allen infuses it with characters we root for because their pathos is an ingredient of the failed American dream so many of the middle class experience in their daily lives.

Allen has revived the kitchen-sink realistic dramas so successfully launched in Britain in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Apropos of the doomed triangle of Wonder Wheel is an original kitchen-sink called Look Back in Anger (1956).  Disillusionment is manifest in ironing boards and kitchen sinks, the hotbeds of despair for disadvantaged women.

Wonder Wheel is his best acting ensemble yet, possibly a result of the director taking unusual care with actors’ performances.

Hardly worthy of the sometimes magical dialogue of other Allen dramadies such as Midnight in Paris, Wonder Wheel has a raw feel, a realistic tint unlike much else he has created. While rough to see characters go through calamities most of us at least have a faint relationship with, it’s salutary to see the Woodman touch down with the real people and make characters that aren’t his doppelgangers.

It’s not funny Woody, it’s real Woody, and it’s wonderful. 

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at