Coney Island, circa 1950. Mickey Ruben (Justin Timberlake) works the beach as a lifeguard and he has a story to tell about a woman in an unhappy marriage, her recovering alcoholic husband and his married-to-the-mob daughter coming home in “Wonder Wheel.”
Ginny (Kate Winslet) once had a hopeful acting career, until she got pregnant and dumped by her first husband. Now, she is “acting a waitress in a clam house” and married to Humpty (Jim Belushi), a struggling alcoholic who runs the merry-go-round at Coney. Their existence is always tense and gets a lot tenser when his daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), arrives, hiding from the mob, and asks to stay.
Humpty and Carolina have been estranged for years after she married made man, Frankie Adano, much against her father’s wishes. During those years, she learned where the mob bodies were buried and gave evidence to the FBI. Now, she is a wanted woman and hides out in the only place where no one would look for her – with Humpty.
Since Carolina’s arrival and the disruption it causes, Ginny has grown more withdrawn and sullen. Then, on a stormy day while walking the beach, she meets handsome Mickey and a new life, a romantic one, begins. But, the idyll does not last long when Ginny introduces her new, secret beau to her stepdaughter.
The several stories told each start with its own thread about romance, secrecy and betrayal. Writer-director Woody Allen revisits his old haunt. Coney Island, which was at the core of many of his characters over the years. But, where he once mined the locale for humor, it is now the backdrop for a tragedy.
The excellent cast flesh out the drama well with Kate Winslet giving a first rate performance as a woman who thinks she finally found true love only to have fate snatch it away. She is a woman alone in a crowd and you feel that lonely desperation. Jim Belushi is solid as the wants-more-than-anything-to-have-a-drink guy working a dead end job and garners sympathy. Juno Temple, as Carolina, even though on the lam, has a naïve innocence that shines through her drama. Justine Timberlake does not give his narrator character the dimension the rest give theirs.
Allen, with maestro cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and the director’s long time collaborator, production designer Santo Loquasto, gives the film a lovely, nostalgic look that compliments the Coney Island setting. “Wonder Wheel” is not an A-list entry for Woody but it does get him on base. I give it a B.
In the 1950's, Coney Island lifeguard Mickey Ruben (Justin Timberlake) tells us he's poetic by nature, studying to become a playwright. He opens the curtain on his tale with 'Enter Carolina' (Juno Temple), the pretty young daughter of Humpty (Jim Belushi) on the run from her gangster husband after singing to authorities. Humpty's wife, clam shack waitress Ginny (Kate Winslet) doesn't take kindly to her appearance, especially when Mickey, the lover she's hoping will whisk her away from her miserable existence, takes notice in "Wonder Wheel."
Writer/director Woody Allen has riffed off the work of others countless times. Here he's channelling Eugene O'Neill, the playwright Mickey idolizes, but his film has an air of artificiality that can only be partially explained by the 'stage' setting of Humpty and Ginny's light filmed apartment overlooking the amusement park. Only Belushi and Temple convince as real people, Winslet's performance going overboard with Allen's exaggerated dialogue, Timberlake creating an earnest naif. What the film does have going for it is Vittorio Storaro's stunningly lit cinematography and the mini 'Sopranos' reunion of Stephen R. Schirripa and Tony Sirico as Nick and Angelo, the goons on Carolina's trail.
With Timberlake narrating, often in direct camera address, we see Carolina make her way to Ginny's work. The harried waitress shuffles the young woman back to her apartment, convinced her husband is 'going to kill me.' Humpty is irate to see his daughter, whom he'd cut off after her marriage, but he relents after being convinced she's going to work on the promise he always saw in her. Ginny protests Carolina's presence as a danger to the son from her own first marriage, the adolescent Richie (Jack Gore, "We Are What We Are") who keeps his mother in continual migraines with his misadventures in arson. But Ginny's really resentful of Humpty's support of his daughter's ambitions while her early acting career was sideswiped by financial reality.
'I have to tell you something,' Mickey confides at this point, relaying the afternoon when he noted a downcast, desperate beauty walking the beach. Mickey's romanticism fires a new lease on life in Ginny, the two carrying on an affair beneath the pier and in Mickey's apartment in the Village. But when Mickey runs into Ginny with her stepdaughter, Ginny's jealousy transforms her into a manipulative, conniving shrew, a woman who will stop at nothing to retain her hold on the younger man.
We've seen Coney Island portrayed in Allen films before, but this is its strangest evocation yet, Santo Loquasto's ("Café Society") production design a combination of nostalgic period realism and the stage. Allen's direction of his actors is similarly schizophrenic. Winslet has us as she establishes her character, but as Allen's climax approaches, her dialogue is so transparently overwrought the actress loses us. In contrast, Temple is genuine, giving Carolina a natural humility. Belushi, just coming off an entertaining turn in David Lynch's "Twin Peaks: The Return," plays Humpty's frustration with the wife he no longer interests sympathetically even as he yearns for the booze that began the marriage's downfall.
Too many of Allen's recent screenplays seem a couple of drafts short. "Wonder Wheel" seesaws between naturalism and playing to the rafters.
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