There are a handful of dialogue-free moments in Wonder Wheel, and they come as an enormous relief. Woody Allen’s talky drama—the 48th feature for the 82-year-old director—has a small group of characters yammering at each other for much of its 101 minutes. But there are a couple of times when the central figure, Ginny (Kate Winslet), is allowed to be alone with herself and her thoughts. Ginny frets, or flips through her movie magazines, or ponders doing something terrible in order to cling to the slim thread of pleasure she has recently had in her life. For a few seconds the movie breathes, partly because a terrific actress is allowed to bring her power into the space—and partly because these are among the only moments in the film when everybody isn’t trying way, way too hard to make something happen.
Don’t be looking for any link to John Mellencamp’s anthem about angsty Heartland lovers here. This movie’s Jack and Diane are urban teens of the same sex, blitzed by true love the instant their eyes meet. That muffled implosion sets off nearly two hours of soulful staring and sporadic, barely audible small talk. Nursing bruised psyches, these kids are behaviorally as limp as rag dolls, but their “passion” manifests in hot horror-movie images. And, oh yes, every once in a while something like a werewolf crashes the party. Monster aside, this languid Romeo and Juliet love story lacks a pulse. Devoid of energy and direction, “Jack & Diane” settles for faux-naïf posturing and arty color design.
Diane’s a wide-eyed British waif vacationing in New York with her aunt, prior to enrolling in a French school of fashion design. Crowned by a tangled blond mane, she’s the picture of whimsy in a self-designed, ultra-cute, quirky A-line dress accessorized by colorful knee-high stockings and clunky sneakers. She might be a retro-etching of Alice in Wonderland. It’s hard to tell Diane’s age, since her face seems to have frozen in an expression of childlike, or maybe lobotomized, melancholy. She acts like she was born yesterday.
A little girl lost in the city, Diane runs into Jack, a street-smart Huckleberry Finn. Long-limbed and boyish, her dark curly hair cropped short, Jack skateboards around town in a ragged man’s shirt and sleeveless T, grieving for a brother who died of a broken heart — and maybe looking to follow in his footsteps. As Diane, Juno Temple is so limpid, so boneless, she’s more sad-eyed Keene print than real live girl. But Riley Keough’s Jack at least has an engaging muscularity. Mobile and androgynously arresting, her face is capable of more than one expression. Her passion for Diane may be under wraps, like everything else in the movie, but it’s as binding as an umbilical cord.