If there is one consistent theme in much of American popular culture, it’s the Manifest Destiny-inspired notion that anything is possible in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
This idea, while borne of some truth, is in many ways more ideal than reality, a comforting notion for many immigrants that limitless and unfettered reinvention is possible in a country unencumbered (or so the comforting mythology goes) by entrenched elites and fossilised societal dynamics.
In Woody Allen’s latest look at the contrary ebb-and-flow of American life, Wonder Wheel, which marks a narrative return to his beloved New York, the great deficiencies in this much-celebrated ideal are exposed with Tennessee Williams-levels of ruthless efficiency.
Beyond that though, Allen cleverly throws into the mix the sense that these deficiencies can be further exacerbated by the poor decisions of those who fail to rise up the ladder in the expected manner.
This is not to say that he’s blaming those caught in the lower rungs of society for their misfortune; it’s clear from the storyline that much of their precarious existence springs from forces far beyond their control.
But when you meet Ginny Rannell (Kate Winslet), a waitress at a Coney Island clam house who is prone to migranes that “explode” her brain and is more than a little predisposed to melodrama, you realise that outside circumstances aside, much of her deleterious state is due to her own flawed judgement.
Amusingly, and this is a rarity in a story which is a very serious affair for the most part with little of Allen’s trademark whimsy or irony, Ginny is the first person to admit this … to anyone, and I mean anyone, who will listen.
Her willingness to overshare her past infidelity and the way it sunk her marriage to her first husband and the father of her pyromaniac son Richie (Jack Gore) becomes a recurring joke, forming the punchline for a funny and illuminating exchange with her son at his psychiatrist.
Humorous exchanges aside, and they are few and far between, Ginny’s willingness to overshare points to her ongoing guilt over the way she’s lived her life, an existential hand-wringing that fails to include any sense of self-awareness that her life is fractured far beyond the one faultline she will acknowledge.
In fact, while her admission of infidelity sounds valiant and full of self understanding, it diverts attention from the fact that she doesn’t really love her second husband, Humpty (Jim Belushi), a recovering alcoholic who is self-interested to a degree but loves his wife in his own locked-down 1950s husband way, is diffident in her attention to her son unless he is causing trouble, and unable to be satisfied by anything in her life, no matter how glittering it might appear to be at first.
So much of Ginny’s weeping and gnashing of teeth is self-inflicted, a malaise which is temporarily lifted when she meets and begins an affair with a narcissistic lifeguard, Mickey (Justin Timberlake), who is studying at NYU and claims to be fascinated by his new love.
Ginny of course sniffs the chance to once more reinvent herself and begins to cling desperately to Mickey in a way that the budding writer, who claims to have his own penchant for melodrama, ultimately finds too suffocating.
But what begins as a gentle pulling apart, much to Ginny’s horror, accelerates markedly when Humpty’s daughter Carolina (Juno Temple), fleeing her gangster husband who’s on the hunt for her after she snitched to the FBI, arrives on the scene and immediately captures Mickey’s fickle attention.
It begins what Winslet referred to in an interview as “the great unraveling of Ginny”, a slow but painful dissolution of the fabricated sense of self she has constructed around her which seals her even more firmly in her shell of misery and self-blame.
As morality plays go, and Allen’s latest writer-directorial effort has the look and feel of a play with limited but effectively-used sets, Wonder Wheel, it’s a doozy as you watch Ginny come unglued in spectacular fashion, washed ashore on rocky shoals of her own creation.
While the film is not one of Allen’s stronger, more arresting efforts, lacking the potency of 2013’s star performer, Blue Jasmine, it functions nicely as an intimate character study, zeroing in on Ginny’s fraying life with an unwavering eye.
As you watch her lose the plot, you begin to appreciate that characters like Humpty are not the usual caricatures you might expect in this film, and that a sense of a happy ending is well beyond the grasp of any of the people in Ginny’s corrosively self-interested orbit.
The one running gag through the film is Richie’s endless pyromania, which sees him lighting fires on beaches, in his psychiatrist’s waiting room and alarmingly, in the basement of an apartment building.
It’s obvious what’s causing this acting out – Ginny’s lackadaisical mothering when, while present in some form, only seems to come alive with any vivacity when she can rant and cajole Richie, or when she can draw further attention to herself.
As characters go, Ginny is compulsive viewing, a rivetingly rich character in a sad, sorry tale of opportunities lost and present blessings and advantages ignored.
A compact, taut narrative in a bottle film, Wonder Wheel displays Woody Allen’s gift for absorbing character studies and enough flashes of his sparkling, idea-rich dialogue to be an absorbing lo-fi story that comes with reasonable emotional heft, making it clear that while life can be cruel and capricious, we are often our own worst enemies when it comes to ameliorating its effects.