With Wonder Wheel, Woody Allen has created an atmospheric period piece with nostalgic scenes of Coney Island on the beach and on the boardwalk, that will stir memories for many who once enjoyed escaping the city’s heat for a day by the sea. The wonder wheel itself looms as a backdrop and ubiquitous presence in the lives of those who live and work in the resort. Coney Island in the fifties was a play land for some, a prison for others.
Ginny (Kate Winslet) was once an aspiring actress, with a husband she loved and a young son. One too many love scenes with another actor led to an affair and the end of the marriage. Now she lives with her second husband, Humpty (Jim Belushi), who runs the amusement park’s merry-go-round. About to turn 40, Ginny works as a waitress at a clam bar on the boardwalk while trying to keep her pyrotechnic son, Richie (Jack Gore), under control.
Steve Schirripa, Tony Sirico, and Jim Belushi
Humpty’s adult daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), shows up unexpectedly. She and her father had a falling out when she quit school to marry a mafioso. After singing to the FBI, Carolina is now on the run. She returns home, hoping that her husband will believe Coney Island is the last place she would come. (Two Sopranos alums, Steve Schirripa and Tony Sirico, turn up as the mafia henchman looking for Carolina.)
Ginny and Humpty live in an apartment that once housed a freak show. Ginny hates everything about her life, angry that one mistake could have derailed what was once a promising future as an actress. It doesn’t help Ginny’s moods that Humpty, seemingly ignorant of the slight, still calls his dead wife “an angel,” and tells Ginny that Carolina is too smart to be a waitress. Humpty is oblivious to his wife’s unhappiness, puzzled that, unlike the other wives, she rejects his offers to take her fishing or to a ballgame.
Ginny’s hope for a future materializes when she meets a lifeguard, Mickey (Justin Timberlake), an NYU student pursuing a master’s degree in European theater. A few casual conversations on the beach lead to drinks, and soon the two are enjoying rainy days making love under the boardwalk. Timberlake is the Allen stand-in, breaking the fourth wall and keeping the audience updated on what’s happening and his feelings. For Mickey, the dalliance is a summer romance that might help provide material for the play he’s trying to write. Ginny, however, sees Mickey as her chance to turn around her life.
When Mickey bumps into Ginny and Carolina, he’s immediately smitten with the younger woman. Carolina, unaware, of course, that her stepmother is having an affair with Mickey, asks Ginny for romantic advice. Ginny, desperate for a way out of her troubled marriage, will do everything possible to keep Mickey and Carolina apart, with disastrous results.
Wonder Wheel is not Allen’s best. An early scene when Carolina tries to justify her return home is too drawn out. And why would the FBI just cut her loose, without protection, knowing she was in danger of being killed? But what’s lacking in the plot is more than made up in the performances. Timberlake is more effective when he’s actually acting in the film rather than talking to the audience. While this narrative device is one of Allen’s favorites, the scenes with Timberlake alone disrupt the flow of the film. Belushi delivers a strong performance as Ginny’s husband. Temple, who might be unknown to many audiences, lights up the screen as Carolina, particularly in the scenes with Timberlake’s Mickey.
Winslet is the heart and soul of the film. There are shades of Blanche Dubois and Norma Desmond in her Ginny. Winslet makes Ginny’s desperation palpable. But while we understand Ginny’s pain, it’s hard to feel sorry for her. She accepts minimal responsibility for how her life has turned out, and is incapable of taking steps on her own to make her life better. Lost in the shuffle is her son, whose cries for attention with his fire setting are met with anger and punishment. Of all the sad personal stories in this film, his is the most tragic.
Top photo: Juno Temple
Photo Credit: Jessica Miglio / Amazon Studios