Amusement parks are the best. The rides! The games! The cotton candy and funnel cakes! Wouldn't it be so cool to live in one?
Well, Ginny does. And she'd tell you that it ain't so hot.
Ginny lives in an apartment right in Coney Island in the 1950s with her hubby, Humpty, and her little boy, Richie. The lights from the rides pour through the windows. The pop-pop-pop from the shooting gallery below thuds through the floorboards. This "honky-tonk fairyland," as she calls it, is far from the happiest place on earth. For her, every day's a headache, every night's a nightmare.
And let's face it, her family doesn't help.
Oh, Humpty was fine at first. More than fine, really: He was a lifesaver five years ago, pulling Ginny out of depression and putting her back on her feet. But she mistook gratitude for love, and now she regrets ever getting hitched. Her son—from Ginny's first marriage, by the way—rarely bothers to go to school. He'd rather go to the movies and set fires instead.
Ginny knows only one ray of happiness in her life, and it shines from a lifeguard and would-be playwright named Mickey. They've been having an affair for months, stealing time underneath the boardwalk and taking long walks through the gardens. He, not Humpty, is the love of Ginny's life. Yes, he's younger than her by some margin. But age is just a number; a ring is just a thing. Soon, Ginny hopes, very soon, he'll take her hand, look into her eyes and ask her to run away with him. It's just a matter of time.
Then in walks Carolina, Humpty's beautiful daughter, scared and penniless and on the run from the mob. She broke Humpty's heart when she ran off with a goodfella. Now hers has been broken, too. And even though Humpty has half a mind to turn her out, he can't reject his little girl. Soon he's paying for night school for Carolina, so she won't have to be a waitress all her life. A waitress like Ginny.
But Carolina's charms don't stop with her doting dad. When Carolina and Mickey spy each other—well, Ginny knows electricity when she sees it. She lives on Coney Island, after all. The lights. The sounds. The looks. The sparks. It's all enough to drive a woman a little bit crazy.
Love seems a finite commodity in Wonder Wheel, and we see little love lost between some of the movie's prime players. But when characters do love each other—and we're talking the sort of genuine love that goes beyond romantic infatuation here—that affection is sincere and sacrificial.
Humpty loves his daughter, for instance. He sets aside money for her education—much to Ginny's annoyance. See, she needs extra money to send Richie, her worrisome-but-loved child, to a much-needed psychiatrist. And Carolina, bless her heart, seems to want to do right by everybody, if she can—not an easy thing with this motley bunch.
Someone says, "From your mouth to God's ears."
Ginny and Mickey have their first sexual encounter underneath the boardwalk. They're mostly clothed in a lovemaking scene that includes subtle sexual movements. They meet elsewhere, too, kissing passionately and desperately.
But Ginny's affair with Mickey isn't the first time she's been unfaithful. She confesses to him that she cheated on her first husband, too—a man whom she insists that she sincerely loved. But Ginny was performing in a play at the time, and every night she had to kiss the same actor. She began to look forward to those kisses, which led to an affair. When her husband found out, he split.
Ginny's outfits sometimes display both curves and cleavage—attire clearly picked to appeal to Mickey. Carolina also wears clothes that flatter her features, including a busty summer dress. She draws interest from several men, including Mickey. Indeed, the two look longingly at one another on occasion, and Carolina takes Mickey out to dinner for his birthday. When she doesn't come home that, Humpty confronts Mickey, believing she spent the night with him. (She didn't).
Ginny believes there's something excessive and perhaps unnatural about Humpty's attachment to his daughter. She says Humpty treats her more like a girlfriend, and Humpty himself tells Carolina that she "dumped" him for the mobster, Frank, breaking her dad's heart. (Other than those verbal allusions, we don't see any inappropriate contact, or suggestion of it, between the two.)
Ginny recounts how she acted in the famous play The Iceman Cometh: "I played one of the whores."
Richie tells mom Ginny that he hates his stepfather, Humpty, in part because Richie says he hits her. "He doesn't hit me," Ginny says, then amends the statement. "When he gets drunk he hits everybody."
Humpty repeatedly threatens Ginny and Richie, both while drunk and while sober. He threatens, for instance, to beat the boy's brains in or whip him with his belt if he catches Richie stealing his money. Ginny tells Carolina the only reason they're living in such a dumpy apartment is because Humpty, while drunk, trashed the lobby of their old place. But as far as what we actually see in the movie, the closest Humpty gets to violence is when he roughly grabs Ginny's arm.
Richie is a literal pyromaniac, fascinated by fire and constantly setting things alight—on the beach, in the streets, even in the trashcan in his psychologist's waiting room. We hear that he set a fire in someone's basement; Ginny's furious, telling him that it's a miracle that no one was hurt.
Carolina comes to Coney Island because she's being chased by the mob and has nowhere else to go. She says Frank started beating her and, eventually, she tattled on the mob to the police. "I know where all the bodies are buried," she tells Mickey. Now she's a marked woman. "If they find me, they'll kill me," she says. Indeed, a couple of wiseguys do begin poking around Coney Island. They confront Humpty (who lies about her whereabouts), and Richie marvels at the gun one of them is carrying. They eventually leave town, and we're told that it was as if the "angel of death" passed over them all.
Someone throws a pocket watch and a bulky tape recorder to show displeasure. Ginny suggests that she has thought about killing herself. She grabs a knife and pleads with someone to do the deed for her.
Crude or Profane Language
We hear nearly 20 uses of "h---." God's name is misused about 35 times, about a dozen of those uses combined with the word "d--n." Jesus' name is abused another 30 or so times. Characters interject two egregious uses of "crap" as well.
Drug and Alcohol Content
As you might've gathered, alcohol usage plays a big role in these characters lives. And it's hardly glamorized.
Humpty has been sober for a while, we're led to believe, and Ginny makes sure that Humpty stays dry. When Humpty and some friends throw a party for Ginny's 40th birthday, one guest complains about the lack of alcohol. "What kind of party is this with no booze?" he gripes.
But Ginny keeps a secret stash of scotch underneath the sink, taking a swig on occasion. When things begin to fall apart, she drinks openly. "I don't want an aspirin!" she shouts at Humpty. "I want a scotch!" Humpty takes the bottle and drinks, too, before he eventually smashes the bottle on the ground and storms off to get more. Both get thoroughly snockered, leading to some unfortunate moments.
Ginny smokes cigarettes as well.
Other Negative Elements
Both Ginny and Richie steal some of Humpty's money.
[Spoiler Warning] The mob eventually returns to Coney Island with a line on Carolina's whereabouts. Ginny, who knows she's out with Mickey, rushes to a payphone to call and warn her … but hangs up before issuing the warning. Carolina disappears later that night. When someone puts the pieces together and realizes what Ginny did (or, more accurately, didn't do), she professes ignorance.
Before she married Humpty, before she became a waitress, before she settled down under the shadow of Coney Island's famous Wonder Wheel, Ginny was an actress. She loved acting. She still has dresses and jewelry from her plays, and she shows them to a weary Richie whenever she can.
Ask Ginny, and she'll insist she's still acting.
"I am playing a part," she tells Mickey. "It's not me. I'm not a waitress in a clam house. I'm more than that."
I'm more than that.
Almost everyone in Wonder Wheel aspires, like the titular wheel itself, to rise above his or her surroundings. Carolina admits that's why she ran off with a mobster instead of choosing a steadier guy back home. "I was 20," she says. "I wanted more." Mickey may be a lifeguard, but he's really an aspiring playwright—one who wants to write important studies of human nature brimming with lyricism and symbolism. Even little Richie expresses his own brand of desire to become more, with his fires offering an outlet for him to transcend his 10-year-old self and become powerful and feared.
Humpty seems to accept life's lot on the surface of things. But in his longing for alcohol, he, too, desperately seeks to escape that fate. To be more, if only in his own inebriated mind.
Mickey finds it fascinating, this desire to be someone different, someone other than who we are: "How we have to lie to ourselves in order to live," he observes. Everyone in this story does that, creating fantasies for themselves, fantasies each carry the seeds of their bearer's destruction.
Woody Allen goes dark with Wonder Wheel, a movie far more bleak and more adult than its PG-13 rating would suggest. Framed intentionally like a stilted stage play—something that would come from the mind of Mickey—Wonder Wheel has its moments of levity and characteristic Allen-esque wit. But eventually any wit or hope or affection goes up in flames, as if tossed into one of Richie's meaningless fires.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Kate Winslet as Ginny; Justin Timberlake as Mickey; Jim Belushi as Humpty; Juno Temple as Carolina; Jack Gore as Richie; Tony Sirico as Angelo; Steve Schirripa as Nick
Woody Allen ( )
December 1, 2017
March 6, 2018