(Release Info London schedule; March 9th, 2017, Electric Cinema, 18:30)
"Wonder Wheel" tells the story of four characters whose lives intertwine amid the hustle and bustle of 'The Coney Island Amusement Park' in the 1950s. Ginny (Kate Winslet), a melancholy, emotionally volatile former actress now working as a waitress in a clam house; Humpty (Jim Belushi), Ginny’s rough-hewn carousel operator husband; Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a handsome young lifeguard who dreams of becoming a playwright; and Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty’s long-estranged daughter, who's now hiding out from gangsters at her father’s apartment. Reeling after the emotional breakdown brought on by her divorce, Ginny finds solace by marrying fellow lost soul Humpty, who's grieving from the death of his wife, and the departure of Carolina, who ran away to marry a local hoodlum. While Humpty has problems with alcohol and holding onto a job, he provides Ginny and her troubled son Richie (Jack Gore) with a home, albeit one in a cramped apartment in the midst of the cacophony of 'Coney Island famed 'Wonder Wheel'. Although Ginny finds a degree of stability with Humpty. She despairs at giving up her dreams for a waitressing job, her marriage to a man more interested in fishing than the finer things, and her inability to help Richie, who has his own emotional problems.
After her marriage to her gangster husband ends, Carolina is questioned by 'The FBI' and knowing too much, it's imperative her ex-husband gets rid of her. Frightened and on the run, Carolina seeks out her father. Feeling she will not be traced there as the two have not spoken in years, he takes her in. When Mickey sees Ginny walking forlornly alone on the beach one night, he approaches her, and they soon begin an affair. For Mickey, a relationship with an unhappily married woman flatters his romantic self-image, but he’s not necessarily thinking long-term; Ginny, on the other hand, soon looks to Mickey as a lifeline with the potential to permanently rescue her from all the mistakes and disappointments of her past life. Humpty is similarly rejuvenated by the reemergence of Carolina in his life. Having a daughter around to love provides surprising joy, as well as a newfound purpose: setting aside money for her to attend night school. However, Ginny and Humpty’s precarious new hopes and dreams are soon threatened when Mickey lays eyes on Carolina for the first time. "Wonder Wheel" is a dramatic tale of passion, violence, and betrayal that plays out against the picturesque tableau of 1950s Coney Island.
Whereas women have always been more open about their emotions. Allen consciously writes his larger-than-life female roles, like Ginny in "Wonder Wheel", with the idea of providing challenges that only the most gifted actresses can rise to. Without question, Ginny in "Wonder Wheel" is the latest in a long line of complex, richly observed and troubled Woody Allen heroines. When we first meet Ginny, she's working in a Coney Island clam house, trapped in a loveless marriage, and carrying the remnants of a painful past. Ginny has a tough life. She scuffled her way up, has illusions about being an actress, and ended up marrying a gentlemen she really loved who loved her, and they had a child. But Ginny couldn’t resist the temptation to have an affair with an actor who's in a show with her, and it caused a complete breakup of her marriage. She realized only when it was too late, the consequences of her infidelity and her actions. Then, she started falling apart, was drinking, and her work suffered. Ginny believed that she was a good actress and could have had a career were it not for the fact that she ruined her marriage, but deep down the reality was that she was never any good. That moment of discovering that actually she's a dreadful actress luckily never came around. In some ways that makes it more tragic.
At this low point in her life, Ginny met Humpty, who's suffering himself, because his wife had died and his daughter Carolina had run off and married a local hoodlum. Even though Ginny and Humpty are able to help each other get back on their feet, eventually Ginny realizes that, by marrying Humpty, she has settled into a life that will never satisfy her. Now that she’s over the crisis, she starts to understand that she doesn’t really love this man. He's a rock when she needed it and she helps him get off alcohol, but that’s not what love is; love is what she had with her first husband. And she yearns for something more exciting than the practical aid that she and Humpty have supplied each other. She feels she’s going under and her life is ebbing away. She’s a bit of a lost soul. It’s as though she spent a large part of her life walking on a tightrope, and she’s just fallen one too many times. Now she’s slithering along the tightrope, neither standing nor really falling anymore. Humpty is very weak to women, and he can’t be alone. He lost both of the women in his life at the same time. He was devastated, and it sent him into a drunken spiral. When Ginny turned up, she reached in and pulled him out of that abyss. And now even though he yells and carries on, it’s Ginny who has the control, because he knows he can’t lose her. If he loses Ginny, he’ll die.
Ginny is not able to help Richie, her son from her first marriage, who has begun to act out by setting fires all around Coney Island. It’s very sad because on some level Ginny does feel like she’s ruined Richie’s life, and she does feel like it’s all her fault that he’s a moody miserable kid who sets fires. She wants to do more for him, but doesn’t quite know how. She’s so consumed with the guilt that she’s screwed up his life by cheating on his father, that it seems to disable her from being able to parent him. The couple’s routine is broken by the unexpected arrival of Humpty’s daughter Carolina, who Humpty hasn’t seen or spoken to in five years. Carolina is a girl who's, by the local standards, very beautiful. At some point, a local hoodlum made a play for her and took her to places where the local boys couldn’t take her, and bought her furs and jewels. She was seduced by the glamour and they end up getting married. For a while they've a nice time together, but eventually things started to get more contentious in the marriage, and they broke up. Soon after, the FBI got to her and threatened her, so she told them some things about her ex-husband’s business. At this point, she becomes a target for her ex-husband and his hit men, as she knows too much and they want to get rid of her. Carolina is a young, hungry creature who got swept up in a universe that felt fast, wonderful and exciting and made her feel glamorous, almost like a magpie to something that twinkles. There’s a fragility to her that magical, but also dangerous, as she wasn’t wise enough to see the darkness her husband brought into her life.
Fearing for her life, and with no other place to go, Carolina reaches out to Humpty, reasoning that, as her ex-husband knows how bitter her relationship is with her father, his home is the last place he would search for her. But maybe it's also the subconscious, or even conscious, feeling that her father would protect her. She goes into it with a childlike feeling that he will hopefully take her back, but she has no idea what she’s going to walk in on, and doesn’t necessarily think about the consequences that her arrival might bring to him. In her innocence, her eyes tend to look on the bright side of life, and look forward and not backward. While Humpty is initially unwilling to forgive Carolina, he quickly softens. With Carolina, Humpty has a much richer, deeper love than he’s experiencing with Ginny. As soon as she arrives, it's like, boom. He's filled with hope, love and purpose again. He has a second chance in life. From then on, it becomes all about saving extra money so that Carolina can go to night school and have a better life. Ginny does not appreciate Humpty’s reactivated passion. She gets annoyed with Humpty because she’s seeing a side of him that she’s never seen before. If Humpty can be that adoring of his daughter, why has he never been that adoring of Ginny? He’s never doted on her and adored her the way that he does with Carolina. Humpty doesn’t need much to keep him happy. When Carolina comes along, suddenly his very small world is complete, but Ginny wants so much more.
Ginny’s deliverance comes in the form of Mickey, a handsome young former sailor working the summer as a lifeguard on 'Coney Island Beach', preparing to get his Masters in drama in the fall at 'New York University'. Mickey’s great wish is to be a playwright. He looks up to all the classic pieces of art that have come through that world in the theatre. Because of his aspirations, he really likes to observe, and clock the humanity of what’s going on around him. Somewhere in his mind, he believes the people he’s observing are going to become the characters of the great play he’ll write one day. Mickey is also the narrator of "Wonder Wheel". As the movie progresses, you start to question how reliable a narrator Mickey is. Because he clearly sees all these people that he is intertwined with in a very specific way. That's the just the way he sees them. Like the old saying that there’s three sides to every story: the two sides, and then there’s the truth, which is probably somewhere in between. One person Mickey pays special attention to is Ginny, as he spies her walking forlornly on the beach. He tunes into her dramatic melancholy immediately and finds it oddly appealing. Mickey is a hopeless romantic, and he finds flaws beautiful.
That night he tells Ginny that there’s something tragic about her, and he means that as a sort of compliment. But he falls more in love with the tragedy of Ginny than with Ginny herself. He likes that she’s in emotional peril. Mickey’s in love with the mystique of writing, of living in the village, of having an affair with or maybe even marrying an older woman. All these romantic notions of a struggling writer are appealing to him, as he tends to romanticize everything. It's not a tragic flaw; it may even be an endearing flaw. The saddest part of his life is that he’s probably not going to be the author that he wants to be. Mickey makes a couple of attempts at writing and maybe there’ll be some mediocre things he turns out, but he’s not destined to be Euripides or Eugene O’Neill. Up until she meets Mickey, Ginny had managed a life without hope, with a little help from headache pills and an occasional nip from a whiskey bottle hidden under the sink, but encountering him upends everything. Once she has Mickey in her life, the great dormant volcano that's Ginny is cracked open again. Mickey represents a world that she had dreamed of in her wildest dreams. He’s a real thing, she didn’t invent him; they're making love; he's whispering sweet nothings to her; they're meeting under the boardwalk in the rain; and he's reciting great prose to her.
She actually begins to believe that maybe she can have another life, one that Mickey seems to promise her. She does have moments of very real hope. Everything changes after Ginny unwittingly introduces Mickey to Carolina and he instantly taken by her. Mickey believes in love at first sight, and he falls really hard for Carolina. In the short time they spend together, as she peels layers back for him, the more he hears about her life, the more he becomes fascinated with the chances that she took at such a young age because she feels like she's in love with somebody. There’s a passion inside Mickey and Carolina has got that too. He’s an artist and he represents a new kind of glamour for her, which is coming from books and plays and conversations about far-off places. Her receiving a book from him tickles something in her that's a new excitement, and she likes being wooed by him. He's a very good wooer; he did it with Ginny and now he’s doing it with Carolina. Ginny’s awareness of Mickey’s growing infatuation with Carolina provokes an intense reaction within her. She hasn’t experienced great jealousy before and it takes her by surprise. She’s really consumed by both the feeling of jealousy itself as well as the awareness that it’s setting her off kilter. Then the jealousy does set in big time, and it makes her crazy. There are no other words for it, it makes her crazy.
Woody Allen has always had a special fondness for 'Coney Island', and memorably set the childhood home of 'Annie Hall's Alvy Singer' under the clattering Cyclone roller coaster. Allen has many happy memories of going there often as a child. There were so many colorful people there, and so many conflicting and complex activities going on, and it was such a vital atmosphere. Like so many of Allen’s films, "Wonder Wheel" is a story that involves love and betrayal. Whether you’re reading Greek drama, Stendhal, Tolstoy, or Dickens, the love relationships are ever-present, because they cause so many people so much anguish, so much conflict. They lead to so many complex, deep, intense, confusing and dramatic feelings and situations. Over the centuries, the guys tend to be less readily demonstrative about their suffering. The male code is to not show suffering. Like when a batter gets hit by a pitcher, the idea is not to show any pain.
There's a physiology of color, where a very warm color raises the metabolism or blood pressure on the bodies and a very cold color lowers it. So the two colors become like two characters, and Mickey is in the middle, and he reflects the tonality of whichever one he's near. These color treatments were not utilized in a solely abstract way, but always had to realistically reflect the places and times the characters are in. Ginny is often seen at ‘sunset time', when the warm tonalities of red/orange of the sun represent symbolically her attachment to the past. As Carolina is linked to the future, she lives mainly in the blue of the ‘magic hour', the time between the sun setting and the moon rising. The most dramatic example is within the family apartment, which is so close to the 'Wonder Wheel' that the attraction’s lights cast deeply saturated reds and blues over the characters. The film creates a theatrical drama. They're living amidst all this turbulence right outside their window, including gunfire from downstairs and lights changing the color of their apartment all the time. There's poetic and theatrical flare, but to retain the realism so you get involved with the characters and care about the story. But colors change in the middle of scenes to emphasize the theatrical tragedy that underlies the story.
While the film is called "Wonder Wheel" because of 'The Coney Island Amusement Park' ride always visible from the family home, the title also has a metaphoric resonance. The same behaviors keep going around and around for these characters. As much as Humpty wants to change, as much as Ginny wants to change, they keep going through their same patterns. It’s a vicious cycle of their lives and their co-dependencies, and they can’t break out. It’s probably true that you can extrapolate some kind of symbol for life from any amusement park ride. Either you’re on the 'Wonder Wheel' going inexorably round and round as life turns meaninglessly, or you’re riding a carousel trying to catch that brass ring that you’ll never really get, or you’re on the rollercoaster. You get the idea. The view is beautiful from the 'Wonder Wheel', but you’re going no place. It has an element of romance to it, an element of beauty to it, but ultimately, an element of futility.