Wonder Wheel Review
Story is original and entertaining
Writing and dialogue between characters is realistic
Acting takes you out of the movie
Effects are overused and in your face
It’s Coney Island Amusement Park in the 1950’s. What could go wrong? Apparently a lot.
Wonder Wheel follows the story of a play as told by lifeguard Mickey Rubin (played by Justin Timberlake), an aspiring playwright. As a fan of many different plays and authors, he aspires to write his own plays and acts as the writer, an actor, and the narrator in this story. Right from the start the movie has a good cliché about it that could make for an interesting movie, but it sadly falls flat on this concept. That aside though, the plot is original and very well thought out and I enjoyed that part of the movie very well.
From the perspective of lifeguard Mickey, the story revolves around the return of Carolina (played by Juno Temple), who married someone in the mob and is now trying to get away from them. After an incident, she is wanted by the mob and they are tracking her down so she goes to the one place they will never try and find her – with her father. Her father, Humpty (played by Jim Belushi), never liked that Carolina ran off to get married against his wishes and the two haven’t spoken since. Thinking that it’s the last place anyone would look for her, Carolina goes to her dad and she is allowed to hide there along with her new step-mother Ginny (played by Kate Winslet) and her son Richie (played by Jack Gore).
Everyone in this family has some character to them, and each has their own dysfunction. Humpty is a dysfunctional alcoholic who has been sober for some time, but is abusive to Ginny and Richie. Richie acts out by starting large fires in public places as a way to cope with his birth father being gone. Ginny isn’t happy with her marriage and is temperamental to almost everything that goes on in the movie. Carolina is of course on the run, and while she makes the attempt of schooling, her main dysfunction is she doesn’t know how to do anything right as she was pampered as a kid, and then as a wife.
It is also important to note that the relationships between these characters are quite dysfunctional themselves. Humpty and Richie do not respect each other at all with Richie stealing from Humpty, and in return Humpty beating him. When Humpty acts like a father to Carolina upon her return, doing more for her than he does for both Ginny and Richie, this causes both of them to become jealous of Carolina. Richie blames his father’s absence on his mother, and Ginny also blames herself for this, repeating it often to Richie. To add to these dramatic relationships, Ginny is in love with the Mickey and is having an affair with him, until he meets Carolina and starts to fall for her instead of Ginny. This of course only exacerbates her ever growing jealousy of Carolina. Needless to say, there is a lot of drama and story being told in this movie, and it is all done very well.
While the method of storytelling does have some issues, for the most part the plot isn’t harmed by it and in some instances it helps. The movie still feels like the characters themselves have to give exposition, when they have the perfect means of exposition with the narrator. They do this from time to time where Mickey will interrupt what is going on to give some exposition or to transition from two scenes, and it works very well. There are a lot of scenes in the movie though that could be replaced by Mickey explaining something quite easily. For example, there is a scene where Ginny and Richie are talking, Richie has heard it all before and Ginny keeps explaining her want to be an actor, and the scene really drags on. This scene easily could have been replaced with Mickey telling that detail about Ginny as the narrator and allowed the story to move on. These parts of the movie that can be fixed are few and far between, but it is prevalent enough that it is worth bringing up. The plot of this movie is solid, but sadly it is the only thing about this movie that really holds up.
The first major problem with this movie is the acting. While the movie is meant to come off as a play, most scenes and dialogue between characters comes off as too “high school play” and less actual professional play. I understand that it’s the tone that the movie is going for, but it does ruin a lot of scenes in this movie that could otherwise be powerful to the story. None of the performances are done very well for this reason and it makes the whole movie seem very amateur.
Jim Belushi has some good scenes and even with the play acting style and he comes off very sincere from time to time. The other times though, I can’t help but wish they didn’t try for that style of movie. This is especially seen on Kate Winslet and Justin Timberlake. Both use long pauses and stutter their lines from time to time to keep the act up, which makes the dialogue during scenes they are in seem disjointed. When they have scenes in the movie together, it makes you want the movie to end as quickly as possible, as you are watching a faked professional train wreck, which can’t even be taken as ironic or comical at the level of bad it is. I love these actors and the movies they have done in the past, but sadly this movie just does not work for them.
It is even easy to tell this is how it is meant to be through Justin Timberlake’s performance. When he is playing and speaking as the narrator of the story, he brings you into the world as an actual playwright explaining his work. Then when he is in the movie as an actor in the story itself his performance is so lackluster it makes me want him to just be the narrator of the story.
There isn’t too much character development that goes on. The characters have their personalities and roles and they don’t learn any lessons during the movie or gain any new insight. The story isn’t meant to heave development of these characters though, as none of them are working to solve the problems they have and are more interested in their own lives to worry about fixing anyone else’s.
While most movies would suffer from this, the movie is about the dysfunction of all these characters and how they react to the story and situation they are in. Ginny is temperamental and anything out of her control causes her to go to the extremes on every emotion she has. Humpty just wants a simple life where he works, fishes, eats, and sleeps. Carolina continues to go back to the pampered way she knows and bringing grief to people around her. Even Mickey is a self-proclaimed over-romantic person who constantly falls in love at first sight, and shows this throughout the movie.
While it is strange, it actually works in this movie’s favor that none of these characters develop throughout the film. This does make them predictable, but not always in a bad way. It’s like going to a fireworks show: you know exactly what is going to happen and you can guess when the explosions are going to happen by following the trail of the firework as it soars into the air, but you keep watching for the explosion. In the same way, you start to realize what these characters are going to do and the reactions they will have and you expect it and are satisfied when it occurs.
As the movie is a play, a lot of the environments and acting comes off like it is a play, and the effects used come off the same way. Sadly, just like the acting though, this is a huge fault the movie has. The environments and sets used in this movie do bring the life to Coney Island Amusement Park and its surrounding area. It does a good job of making me want to jump in the movie and live in this world, but that’s about where the good parts of the effects end in this movie.
At some point during the writing it was thought that it would be a good idea to have lights and colors to represent emotional moments, and are used whenever sadness, jealousy, anger, and flirting in the movie. Blue is shown anytime conversations are happening that involve sadness or deep emotion like it, which will overtake the entire screen in a filter. Then when something of intense anger or flirting emotion occurs yellows and oranges fill the screen. Then when it turns to jealousy a red filter is used. While it is a nice effect to be used, it just does so poorly switching back and forth in a single scene that it seems like someone just put a Philips Hue light on autopilot and forgot to turn it off before filming.
This added with the fact that nearly half the movie happens as close-up shots constantly panning back and forth as the whole screen is taken up by the same color makes some conversations not very visually appealing. For some scenes it makes sense, but almost any time a conversation happens between two people the camera pans back and forth with close up shots of the people talking. It is a wasted effect that doesn’t work with the play-like nature of the rest of the movie. This mixed with the acting mentioned earlier makes for some bad scenes in the movie. Keeping with how a play should be, almost the entire environment should be visible at all times. Instead we only see the face of the person talking before a jump cut to the other persons face. This can then go on for up to 5 minutes before a zoom out shot shows both people, and even then it will go right back to the close-up conversation once again. In short bursts it doesn’t hurt, but about a third through the movie you are tired of them, and by the time the movie ends you are just hoping that the people stop talking so you don’t have to worry about these scenes.
While the story is entertaining and enjoyable to watch, sadly the effects and acting really take away from it. It is hard to get through some scenes as the lighting and terrible acting take you out of some scenes and waiting for them to end. It doesn’t hit levels that will make people walk out of the theater, but it doesn’t leave an experience that is memorable. Some parts are memorable, for the most part though the scenes that were terrible are the ones that stick out the most, which is sad since the premise of the movie is such a good one. This is a movie that I wanted to like and was excited to have the opportunity to see, but it just falls flat in so many ways that it takes away from the experience.
The story and idea of this movie is great. The play style movie leads some good environments and some good writing for the dialogue between characters. The idea of a having the movie being played and narrated by the person who wrote it works as something I would want to see again in a future movie. The idea of it being a play loses its touch here sadly, as the acting is akin to a high school play, which takes you out of an otherwise enjoyable movie. Then the lighting effects are so in-your-face and overused that it loses its touch about halfway through the movie. This movie isn’t going to leave any lasting impressions, but it isn’t a bad movie. If you have an hour and a half to kill, and the concept sounds like something that interests you, check it out. Otherwise pass on this one as you will probably not enjoy it.