Having missed the last two Woody Allen entries, 2015’s Irrational Man and 2016’s Café Society, his latest effort, Wonder Wheel, leaves me wondering if I should even bother going back and seeing them. Wonder Wheel is inert and stagey, cheap and fake-looking, while also boasting (if that is the word) one of the worst performances we’ve ever seen from Kate Winslet. Judging from the work by the other members of the cast, however, Winslet may have been just left to figure things out on her own: no one here — including Jim Belushi, Juno Temple, or Justin Timberlake — acquits themselves very well, and neither does the director in his latest melodramatic trip down memory lane.
The film is set on Coney Island in some fantasy version of the 1950s; the exterior locations look lovely but the apartment that Ginny (Winslet) shares with second husband Humpty (Belushi) and her son from her first marriage (Jack Gore), who is a budding pyromaniac, looks like a set from a high school play with a painted backdrop of the Coney Island boardwalk behind it. Ginny is, of course, miserable: a former actress, she now toils in a boardwalk clamhouse while the unambitious recovering alcoholic Humpty runs the carousel and fishes for their supper off a nearby pier. The only light in Ginny’s life is Mickey (Timberlake), a lifeguard and would-be intellectual playwright whom Ginny is getting busy with.
Everything, however, is thrown into chaos by the arrival of Carolina (Temple), Humpty’s sexy-sweet daughter from his own first marriage. Carolina herself was married to a mob boss but is now on the run and returns to her estranged dad for sanctuary (in one of the film’s fleeting moments of amusement, the two goons who come looking for her are Steve “Bobby Baccala” Schirripa and Tony “Paulie Walnuts” Sirico from The Sopranos). It isn’t long, however, before Carolina appears on Mickey’s radar as well: in a plot turn that is mind-boggling in its real-life intimations, the closest thing the movie has to an Allen stand-in gets involved with both mother and stepdaughter.
That bit of clickbait aside, all this is pretty much drawn from the standard Allen morality play template; what’s particularly shocking is how ineptly it’s all presented. While Vittorio Storaro paints the movie in beautiful, gleaming colors (lots of red and deep blue), he is also victim to the seeming indifference Allen is showing to his own material: the camera follows the actors around Ginny and Humpty’s cramped apartment like a helpless child, unsure of where to stop and finally just hanging there while the cast spouts its leaden chunks of dialogue. Perhaps this is supposed to be meta, staged and performed purposely like the kind of bad play that Mickey would probably write if he ever got around to it?
That’s giving Allen too much credit, in all likelihood. And Timberlake, who’s been pretty good in smaller roles in other movies, doesn’t have nearly the talent to pull off anything more complicated than getting his lines out, most of them nonsense about Eugene O’Neill anyway. Belushi comes across as a parody of a Brooklyn working class schmoe (making a credible Andrew Dice Clay in Blue Jasmine look like Marlon Brando) while Winslet’s shrieking, semi-permanently hysterical Ginny is not only exhausting but ultimately demeaning to both the actress and working women in general (I lost count of the times she whined that her head was “throbbing” or “cracking open”).
Allen is not especially known for giving detailed direction to his actors, so Winslet just seems to have decided to swing for the fences here. But it’s not a good look for her, and the choices she makes come across as more cartoonishly vindictive than tragic. Ultimately, however, it’s not the actors but the filmmaker who is at the controls of this ride, and we suspect viewers will want to get off this particular Wonder Wheel long before its 100 minutes are up.
Wonder Wheel is out in theaters today (Dec. 1).