Despite the controversy that inevitably arises over nearly every one of his releases over the last couple of decades, it’s hard to argue that Woody Allen hasn’t written some great roles for women.
Hollywood actresses have won six Academy Awards (and earned many more nominations) for roles penned by Allen.
Most recently, Cate Blanchett took home the Best Actress Oscar for her brilliant turn in the equally brilliant film “Blue Jasmine.”
And now, fellow Australian Kate Winslet gets her Woody Allen star turn in the new film, “Wonder Wheel.” Not surprisingly, she makes the most of it.
Winslet plays Ginny, an unfulfilled middle-aged wife and mother who lives with her blended family right next to the Coney Island fairgrounds in the 1950’s.
Justin Timberlake plays Mickey, who doubles as the film’s narrator and a Coney Island lifeguard who throws something of a lifeline to a metaphorically drowning Ginny.
Ginny’s on her second marriage, this time to a recovering alcoholic named Humpty, and doing her best to raise a malcontent son. Always short of money, she has to work long, hard hours as a waitress on the boardwalk. Her life takes a seeming turn for the better when she begins an affair with the lifeguard. He’s much younger than she is but they both have aspirations for the stage, he as a playwright and she as an actress.
Here Ginny/Winslett practices in front of a mirror how best to confide in Mickey.
“I want to be honest with you Mickey. I’m married. I’m a married woman….
I got myself into a bad situation. I had notions of ending everything. Thought about drowning. Of course, with a kid that’s not an option. Besides, you would have dived in and ruined my dramatic finale.”
This life of new possibilities is compromised by the unexpected appearance of Humpty’s adult daughter, Carolina. Carolina’s newly divorced and running from the mob and decides to hide with her dad’s new family. Complications ensue.
Ginny/Winslett suffers through them all.
Much of “Wonder Wheel” feels like a stage play. Most of the action takes place in a single apartment, the characters all feel a little exaggerated, and their dialogue seems a tad overwrought. That could be a serious flaw but I think it’s intentional.
After all, Mickey the narrator professes to love melodrama and dreams of being a great playwright like Eugene O’Neill. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine “Wonder Wheel” as a play that Mickey himself writes some day.
Much like “Blue Jasmine” was a contemporary and comic riff on Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” perhaps “Wonder Wheel” is Woody Allen’s particular riff on some of the other serious dramas of that bygone era. Whether or not you buy that hypothesis, Kate Winslet certainly takes her role as seriously as if she were in a Eugene O’Neill masterwork.