Woody Allen’s new film is set in the early fifties, and in essence it’s like a Broadway play from that era—something from the pen of Williams or Inge. Perhaps “Wonder Wheel” is intended as homage, perhaps as low-key spoof. In either case it’s mid-grade Allen.
Kate Winslet takes on the obligatory role of the unhappy older woman, Ginny, a harried waitress at a Coney Island oyster bar. Once an aspiring actress married to a jazz drummer with whom she had her only son, Richie (Jack Gore), she was unfaithful to her husband, and he abandoned the family. Now she’s married to Humpty (Jim Belushi), a slob who runs the nearby carousel, and the family live in an apartment that overlooks the great Ferris Wheel of the title.
The threesome is constantly in emotional turmoil. Ginny is deeply discontent, regretting her past mistakes and showing no interest in joining Humpty’s low-brow pastimes with his pals—fishing or going to ballgames. Humpty, a barely recovering alcoholic, is worried about his business and incapable of understanding Ginny’s funk. Meanwhile Richie has become a pint-sized pyromaniac, starting fires whenever and wherever he can.
Into this volatile mix come two new players. One is Mickey Rubin (Justin Timberlake), a war vet now studying drama at NYU and working as a lifeguard on the side. (He also serves as the film’s narrator, speaking directly into the camera to tell us of his past.) He and Ginny meet one day, and she is immediately smitten with him. Soon they are having an affair, even after she tells him that she’s married.
The other newcomer is Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty’s daughter by a previous marriage, who had run off years before to marry a gangster. Now she’s back, pursued her husband’s associates, since she’s squealed on him to the FBI. She needs a place to hide, and though Humpty is initially furious with her, he quickly turns into the solicitous dad, bankrolling her return to school.
Ginny is none too happy with the girl’s presence, and becomes more embittered when Carolina takes a waitress job at the oyster diner and, in her view, fails to shoulder her share of the work. But she goes truly frantic when Carolina meets Mickey on the beach and she fears that they will get together and destroy the only oasis of happiness she now has in her life. Her feelings lead her into a moral dilemma that will be both destructive of others and self-destructive as well.
“Wonder Wheel” isn’t dull—it holds your interest in much the same way that “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Picnic” still do, though they were, of course, originals rather than copies and some of the plot threads (like Richie’s pyromania) never amount to anything while others (like allowing Carolina to roam around New York despite the mob’s interest in her) ring false. And Winslet puts her all into Ginny, capturing her desperation in a fearless turn that presumably is meant to replicate Cate Blanchett’s in “Blue Jasmine.” Belushi does a surprisingly solid Ralph Kramden imitation as well, and Temple certainly manages everything Allen provides her with, though Carolina is an underwritten character. The movie also offers a relatively rare chuckle of recognition to anybody who watched “The Sopranos” when Tony Sirico and Steven J. Schirripa show up as the mobsters looking for Carolina.
The weak link in the ensemble is Timberlake, who’s essentially the equivalent of Hal Carter in “Picnic”—the man women find irresistible. But Carter was played, on the screen at least, by William Holden, and Timberlake is no Holden. The ex-singer has mastered the rudiments of acting: he can now recite dialogue with the proper inflections, and moves reasonably well. But his range is distinctly limited, and the effect when he spouts Mickey’s pseudo-intellectual bromides is laughable. To be sure, Allen’s writing here is affected in a very theatrical way. But the other actors are able to camouflage that with their dramatic conviction; Timberlake can’t, and since he serves as narrator as well as an important character, the result is nearly fatal.
On the other hand, this “Wheel” is visually wonderful. The period recreation of 1950s Coney Island is spectacular—kudos to production designer Santo Loquasto, costumer Suzy Benzinger, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and the video effects artists. The picture could support an extensive photo gallery.
In the end, however, the film has a derivative feel, overly reminiscent not only of fifties Broadway drama but of some of Allen’s previous pictures. While it probably won’t bore you, it’s likely to leave you with a feeling of déjà vu.