Heart Like a Wheel is a by-the-numbers character study of the twists and turns in a woman's road toward success in a sport traditionally dominated by men. Beginning with what look like outtakes from Grease, Wheel takes Bonnie Bedelia's Shirley Muldowney realistically through the decades, from plucky naif to world-weary veteran, layering on the wear and tear as well as the shiftless suitors. By the time she earns the nickname "Cha Cha," she has become the grand dame of the sport, but also kind of a ridiculous figure, who traded her youthful vigor for the crass comfort of acceptance among a community of hot shots. Her effort to reclaim the old Shirley, while refusing to succumb to the fleeting charms of Beau Bridges' Connie Kalita, make up the last portion of the film, solidifying the female empowerment message that serves as an undercurrent. Bedelia gives an assured performance, and the film moves forward with narrative competence, but there are few deviations from the standard formula used to chart the tumultuous careers of athletes or other creative individuals.
by Derek Armstrong review