Wonder Wheel

(USA 2017)

For whatever difference it makes, I had no idea Woody Allen had a new movie coming out, like, now. Being a fan, I didn’t hesitate to sign onto a prerelease screening of his latest, Wonder Wheel. Now that I’ve seen it, I must say that I’m not disappointed.

Set in 1950s Coney Island — in case the title didn’t cue you in — Wonder Wheel is a tawdry story of multifaceted infidelity told by lifeguard Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a hopeful playwright attending school at New York University. An unreliable narrator, he warns us up front that he’s prone to drama. He meets middleaged Ginny (Kate Winslet), a waitress in a clamhouse, on the beach. They commence a summer affair. She takes it for more than it is. Then Mickey meets Ginny’s step-daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), who’s hiding from her Mafioso husband. He’s smitten. She’s smitten. Ginny senses it, and she’s thrown into blind jealousy. It doesn’t end well.

Wonder Wheel doesn’t feel like a Woody Allen movie, at least not at first. It’s a bit too cute, too hollow, too stiff, and perhaps surprisingly too nostalgic. The acting is forced and hammy, and the writing is…weird. Hang in there — it gets better, and it becomes clear that everything that appears to be a flaw is actually planned.

About a third of the way through, the characters show their true colors. It’s not pretty, but it all comes together nicely, melding seamlessly into a stage play. Plus, the elements of Allen’s best films — characters who are neurotic narcissists, love (or is it lust?) throwing them off, and the unmistakable reference to Alvy Singer’s boyhood home  — become apparent. It’s dark, but it’s engrossing.

Wonder Wheel is Allen’s take 20th Century American playwrights generally, and Eugene O’Neill specifically. The plot involves a fucked up family situation that brings out the worst in everyone involved, except Carolina. Winslet unravels nicely; she’s not as exciting as Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, but she’s really close. Both are strong in their own way.

Jim Belushi evokes John Goodman so much that I wonder if his part was written for Goodman. Curiously, Winslet evokes Susan Sarandon. Ironically, the only good person is the one one who digs her own grave: Carolina. The story is interesting. Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography, which makes the entire film look like it was shot at sunset, is strikingly gorgeous, tinted in dreamy reds, greens, and blues.

I can’t say Wonder Wheel is even close to Allen’s best films, but I rank it in the upper eschelon of his late period work. It’s not as good as Blue Jasmine, but it’s not far off.

With Max Casella , Jack Gore, David Krumholtz, Robert C. Kirk, Tommy Nohilly, Tony Sirico, Stephen R. Schirripa, John Doumanian, Thomas Guiry, Gregory Dann, Bobby Slayton, Michael Zegarski , Geneva Carr, Ed Jewett, Debi Mazar, Danielle Ferland, Maddie Corman, Jacob Berger, Jenna Stern

Production: Amazon Studios, Gravier Productions

Distribution: Amazon Studios

101 minutes
Rated PG-13

(AMC River East) B

Chicago International Film Festival