CREDIT: Jessica Miglio/Amazon Studios

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Kate Winslet, Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple, Jim Belushi

Director: Woody Allen

Running Time: 101 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Angry Scotch Drinking and Off-Screen Whack Jobs

Release Date: December 1, 2017 (Limited)

Knee-jerk rejection of voiceover narration because it explains things too straightforwardly earns my ire as one of the worst habits in criticism. But in fact there are times when some filmmakers use the technique as crutch, and perhaps none as frequently as Woody Allen. At least in the case of his latest, Wonder Wheel, he attempts a more poetic form of narration, or so he would like us to believe. Scratch that. It’s not just poetic. It’s also dramatic. You see, because the narrator, Mickey Rubin (Justin Timberlake), isn’t just a lifeguard, he’s also a poet and a dramatist. One would think that there is enough drama inherent in a film that its narrator would not need to spell it out so directly, but Wonder Wheel puts that theory to the test.

Mickey would like you to know that he is also a player in the story that he is telling. Perhaps his presence is meant to spice up this tale with extra passion, but that does not appear to be the case in any discernible fashion. The setting is 1950s Coney Island, and most of the action is set in or around the beach or boardwalk. As far as I can tell, the endless amusement of this area is irrelevant to the people who live there. Mickey is having an affair with Ginny (Kate Winslet), a frustrated waitress married to Humpty (Jim Belushi), who is a decent protector but also a bit of a brute. The most interesting thing about him is his name – is it a nickname? Is it short for something? Could it actually be his given name? Meanwhile, Humpty’s adult daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) shows up unexpectedly, after having run off and married a gangster years earlier. She tries to lay low and get through night school, but naturally some of her husband’s associates come looking for her because she knows too much.

Ultimately, nobody gets a happy ending, which is hardly surprising. But it would have been nice if there had been some sense, any sense, of finality. One of the worst possible outcomes happens, and then Wonder Wheel just stops. Then we just move on out the theater and get on with our lives, with nary a memorable impression to show for it. Maybe the stagy, stilted, sporadically compelling acting style will stick with me a bit, but otherwise, it must be said: Woody, you don’t have to stick to your one-film-per-year routine. It is okay to wait until you find inspiration.

Wonder Wheel is Recommended If You Like: The Jim Belushi-aissance, Stage-style acting on film, Narration that is too wispy to even be pretentious

Grade: 2 out of 5 Humptys