A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that although Woody Allen's dark drama Wonder Wheel doesn't have any nudity or on-screen violence, it's not intended for kids. It deals with serious themes of adultery, suicide, murder, and consequences for past actions. A couple has sex in public, almost fully clothed. Mob killings and domestic abuse are discussed/implied but not shown. The only child character is a pyromaniac who's headed for serious trouble. Drinking and smoking are presented negatively but are part of the building stress of the film's third act; language is infrequent but includes "hell" and "Jesus Christ" (as an exclamation), as well as some insults and derogatory ethnic terms. As usual for an Allen film, it's packed with well-known actors, including Kate Winslet, Jim Belushi, and Justin Timberlake.
What's the story?
In 1950s Coney Island, Ginny (Kate Winslet), a frustrated one-time actress, is married to struggling-but-good Humpty (Jim Belushi), a man she doesn't love. Ginny's young son from her first marriage is traumatized by her past behavior, a situation that's reflected in his growing pyromania. Ginny meets Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a handsome lifeguard and aspiring playwright; sparks fly, and their affair begins. Then Humpty's daughter from his first marriage, Carolina (Juno Temple), arrives, on the run from her mobster husband. Complications ensue.
Is it any good?
What Woody Allen and his collaborators have accomplished here -- in one of his darkest dramas, taking place in one of his brightest settings -- is beautiful ugliness. Wonder Wheel, named for the most famous attraction at the film's Coney Island location, is full of people haunted by their histories: infidelity, impulsive choices that led to criminal ties, alcoholism, domestic abuse, callous behavior that cost everything and traumatized children. They're all part of the drama that's framed by Mickey, the lifeguard/former sailor/playwright/leading man who narrates from an admittedly unreliable perspective. It's likely no accident that Mickey has some similarities with Tennessee Williams' characters, including Tom from The Glass Menagerie; Ginny (Winslet), too, isn't far removed from Williams' Blanche DuBois or Maggie the Cat. Winslet turns in one of the best performances of her great career, inhabiting Ginny's moments of soaring hope and painful deterioration. And Belushi delivers surely his finest work as the husband who at first seems like a drunken lout but then reveals a beating heart capable of change and love. Temple, too, has layers to reveal as the daughter on the run. These characters, plus Ginny's son (whose pyromania mirrors his mother's mania), are all locked in a drama that inextricably leads from the candy colors of a beach-set amusement park to somewhere unlit and starless.
Legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (known for Bernardo Bertolucci movies including The Last Tango in Paris and Francis Ford Coppola films including Apocalypse Now) rejoins Allen after Café Society to craft perhaps the richest visual world of the storied filmmaker's career. Storaro bathes scenes in dusky ambers and shades of blue; bold, colorful choices that make the scenes look painted. He brings new camera movement and framing to Allen's work, energizing it. Along with longtime Allen production designer Santo Loquasto, Storaro creates the feeling of being inside the beautifully crafted set of an Arthur Miller or Eugene O'Neill or Williams play -- clearly intentionally, in keeping with Mickey's playwright's perspective. That might also explain Allen's odd use of repetitive, almost amateurish dialogue in the film's first extended scene, possibly establishing this as the world of a young writer's mind. Wonder Wheel is perhaps Allen's most technically accomplished film, lush and delicious to view, though its darkness and morally asymmetrical universe will be a turnoff to some.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how infidelity is presented in Wonder Wheel. How does it compare to what you usually see? Are either of the adulterers virtuous in their own way? Are there consequences for their actions? Is either trustworthy?
Does this seem like a morality tale to you? Do the bad people get punished and the good ones get rewarded? Or is it morally uneven?
Do you sympathize with any of the characters? Did your mind change about any of them as the story goes on? Do you consider any of them role models?
How is this film similar to or different from Woody Allen's other movies? What do his films tend to have in common?
- In theaters: December 1, 2017
- On DVD or streaming: March 6, 2018
- Cast: Kate Winslet, Justin Timberlake, Jim Belushi, Juno Temple
- Director: Woody Allen
- Studio: Amazon Studios
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 101 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: thematic content including some sexuality, language and smoking
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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