Wonder Wheel

A new drama by Woody Allen

Wonder Wheel opens with Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a wannabe playwright and current Coney Island lifeguard, staring at the camera: ‘I relish melodrama and larger-than-life characters,’ he says. There are a lot of those in this lush ’50s romance, one of the more confident Woody Allen pictures of late, but Kate Winslet looms above them all.

Poster for the new Woody Allen drama Wonder WheelAs Ginny, a failed actress turned clam-bar waitress, Winslet delivers her most powerful, emotionally resonant performance in more than a decade. Though inevitable comparisons to Cate Blanchett’s fiery turn in Allen’s Blue Jasmine hold water, Winslet delivers a softer, melancholic woman yearning for something more. She transforms a bumbling alcoholic caricature who makes bleak jokes about missed opportunities into a woman with majestic sadness.

The rest is nothing we haven’t seen before, but it’s nevertheless one of the more confident visits to Allen’s universe in a few years. The postwar Coney Island setting comes to life with vivid colors, rickety theme-park rides, grimy bars, and smooth jazz. In fact, Wonder Wheel owes much of its appeal to cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s remarkable color schemes. Almost as much the auteur here as Allen himself, Storaro enlivens the movie’s mood with blue-toned nighttime love scenes, the bright yellows of the boardwalk, and reddish hues streaming into a bedroom after dark.

In a ramshackle apartment adjacent to the boardwalk, Ginny endures her booze-fueled existence with boorish mechanic husband Humpty (Jim Belushi, alternately zany and abhorrent), and her young son Richie (Jack Gore), who doesn’t say much but struggles with pyromaniac tendencies. In this chaotic mix lands Humpty’s estranged daughter Caroline (an energetic Juno Temple), on the run from the mob because of her husband’s misdeeds. It’s right around then that Mickey spots Ginny from his lifeguard perch.

Cue narration: "The dramatist in me sensed she was in some kind of trouble." While Allen’s tendency toward voiceover often pushes the material into eye-rolling overstatement, here it’s fitting: Ginny’s a histrionic woman lost in her fantasy as a damsel in distress, and Mickey’s just the guy to rescue her. Shrugging off their age difference, he sweeps her off the sand and into a fairy-tale love affair – until Caroline also catches his eye.

So goes the neatly assembled love triangle, which – as in so many Allen movies – careens into a few obvious shouting matches and misguided decisions. But Allen’s script offers enough psychological depth to Ginny’s character that Winslet handily takes it into the finish line. That’s especially notable in a show-stopping monologue about the decline of her marriage and acting career, delivered with a stunning degree of restraint as the camera sits close to her face, illuminated by moonlight and the ocean’s deep-blue glow behind her. It’s among the very best moments in her extensive career.

Despite its vibrant palette, Wonder Wheel stands out as a dark, brooding dramedy, one tinged with more overarching sadness than any of Allen’s late-period offerings. This is a mesmerizing portrait of being abandoned by the world, fighting for a new role to play, and winding up more alienated than ever before.

– Eric Kohn, Indiewire

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