Wonder Wheel starts off like many Woody Allen (Cafe Society) films: A hapless narrator explaining the romance/farce/tragedy that is about to unfold. In this case, it is a bit of all of that, but it also quickly shifts into a new mode for Allen. With the immense help of Jim Belushi (Twin Peaks) and Kate Winslet (Collateral Beauty), we are suddenly transported into a Eugene O’Neill play with moments of Tennessee Williams, complete with claustrophobic set, heavy use of alcohol, violence, and disastrous romantic longings. Not to detract from Winslet’s more subtle performance, but Belushi is the real powerhouse behind these scenes; he is an unexpected gut punch in what you expect to be a light, period romance.
Those truly phenomenal scenes are broken up with more typical Allen moments, but without the forced, halting aspects that tend to distract in his movies. All of the scenes flow nicely, though the tenor of the dialog becomes lighter and a tad stilted. Justin Timberlake (Trolls) tends to herald these moments. To a degree, I understand the choice and it is explained at the very top of the film, but the scenes cut into a more powerful story and I think it could have been smoothed through a bit better.
Running between the two worlds along with Winslet is Juno Temple (Black Mass). She brings most of the Tennessee Williams sensibility: fragile, naive, tough, intelligent, lost, and desperate to be loved. She is a breath of Southern Gothic dropped into the Northeast Tragedy.
In many ways, while not necessarily the best Woody Allen film, it is one of his most impressive. The use of language and setting is powerful. The story is relateable and yet utterly designed. The tragedy inevitable and yet totally avoidable. If not for the recent events in the industry, Wonder Wheel would have garnered a lot more attention and nominations. That it didn’t is a complicated conversation every person will have to answer for themselves. But, from a purely artistic point of view, I can recommend the film for the performances, writing, and direction and it may suggest an entirely new direction for Allen’s oeuvre.