You know how it goes with Woody Allen films (at least since the mid-1990s, around the time of his tabloid break from Mia Farrow): one a year, with every third effort being a worthy nugget, preceded by and antecedent by two duds. Just take the electric “Blue Jasmine” (2013), which rightly garnered the royal Cate Blanchett an Oscar, followed up by the sluggish “Magic in the Moonlight,” which squandered the talents of two Oscar winners, and “Irrational Man,” the unholy marriage of Phillip Roth and Alfred Hitchcock. “Cafe Society” (2016) marked an up, which leads us to Allen’s latest, “Wonder Wheel.” Does it follow the model? Yes, but not entirely.
A key narrative device in “Wonder Wheel” are asides to the audience by a hunky Coney Island lifeguard named Mickey (Justin Timberlake) who patrols the shores sometime after the end of the Second World War, as America sits perched on the cusp of prosperity. Hope and prospect seem to be everywhere for everybody, except a merry-go-round operator named Humpty (Jim Belushi, interestingly cast and auspiciously named) and his wife, Ginny (Kate Winslet), a failed actress turned grousing waitress. They’re both on second marriages; he has problems with the sauce, and her preteen son from a previous marriage has an affinity for lighting impromptu fires. There’s also the matter of Humpty’s daughter, Carolina (an ebullient Juno Temple), whom Humpty disowned after she ran off and married a Miami gangster. Shortly into the film Carolina returns, seeking refuge with the desire to go to night school to become a teacher. It makes for a happy reunion until mob heavies from Miami show up looking for their boss’ dame.
Despite the myriad moving parts and personalities, “Wonder Wheel” is unquestionably Winslet’s “Blue Jasmine” opportunity; the entirety of the drama flows through Ginny, the cumulative angst, anxiety and ephemeral moments of joy, erupting through her in deeply emotive bursts. Like “Jasmine” too, “Wheel” bears the indelible imprint of a Tennessee Williams drama, replete with claustrophobic quarters, grand dreams, dank, rife sexual desire and assured tragedy. Allen’s orchestration may feel a bit stagey, but it works effectively to emboss the moments of intimacy and confrontation that come mostly in tightly tied tandems, one melting into the other or the other laying the tinder for the other to ignite.
It takes a while, but we find out Ginny and Mickey are having a thing under the boardwalk. He’s an attentive lover and earnestly entertains the notion of dropping out of grad school (he served in the South Pacific and now wants to be a playwright) and running off with Ginny, saving her from a loveless marriage. Then enters Carolina. The attraction between the ingénue and lifeguard is fast and instantaneous and happens right before Ginny’s eyes when she introduces the two during a chance encounter on the boardwalk. If ever there was an emotional house of cards, this is it, and not all the players in the incestuous love triangle are fully aware of others’ involvement – Greek playwrights would approve.
The problem with “Wonder Wheel” ultimately becomes its endless rotation of self-loathing, self-interested and shortsighted characters, wanting without doing. It’s not a good way to endear. Allen’s been in similar territory before and made morally questionable folk full and interesting. Take “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989), “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986) or even “Match Point” (2005); here there’s no nuance or shred of redemptive uptick to hold onto, just the shrill grind of the go-round’s gears in desperate need of grease.
Winslet is capable – she has soldiered through worse (“Labor Day”) – and gives it a game go. Any less of an actress might have been crushed by the material’s weightiness, but Winslet, channeling a carefully curated blend of Allen’s classic New Yawk angst cut with the hyperbolic hysteria of Blanche DuBois, holds herself high even as Allen’s dark comedy struggles to maintain an equal buoyancy.
No matter. The real stars of”Wonder Wheel” are the cozy shanty shack that Ginny and Humpty occupy in the shadow of the Island’s great Ferris wheel – clustered and tight, ramshackle and inviting, with windows to the world – and the color-infused cinematography by the legendary Vittorio Storaro (“The Last Tango in Paris” and “Apocalypse Now”). It’s a scrumptiously framed and staged production, unfortunately filled with contemptible beasts full of aspiration and vacant of charity.
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the WBUR ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.