A fresh Woody Allen movie arrives practically every year like clockwork. Some are good – most are middling. Being prolific isn’t a crime, but with Allen, what you often get are retreads dolled up to look brand-new.
“Wonder Wheel” is set in Brooklyn’s Coney Island amusement park in the late 1950s, and so one might expect it to be more “personal” to this Brooklynite auteur than some of his other films. But it turns out that the main reason Allen likely chose this location is for its visual allure: With the help of his cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, he gets to turn the boardwalk into a candy-
colored, eye-popping fantasia. From a purely thematic standpoint, this “look” makes little sense, but it sure is nice to gaze upon. It takes one’s mind off the theatrics, which are often less than galvanizing.
Ginny (Kate Winslet) and her husband, Humpty (Jim Belushi), live right on the boardwalk in a makeshift apartment. She’s a waitress in a clam house; he operates the carousel. She was once married to a drummer and had ambitions to be an actress. In a sense, she’s still an actress; she overemotes constantly and turns even the simplest domestic spat into high drama. It’s not entirely believable that she would have taken up with the kindhearted but boorish Humpty, whom she is constantly keeping away from the booze.
Into their lives comes Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty’s daughter from a previous marriage, who is on the run from her gangster husband. Since she and her father have long been estranged, she figures his boardwalk home is the last place the pursuing mobsters will think to look.
It doesn’t take long before Humpty and Carolina are reconciled – he declares that she was “the light of [his] life.” Ginny, meantime, is romanced by Mickey (a miscast Justin Timberlake), the local lifeguard. It is Mickey who acts as the audience’s tour guide of this menagerie. He’s a Lothario without really coming on like one. Having served time in the Navy, he attends New York University graduate school and fancies himself a budding playwright. He gives Carolina a present of Ernest Jones’s psychoanalytic study “Hamlet and Oedipus” – can there be any more perfect gift in a Woody Allen movie? – and makes a point of looking for the “great tragic flaw” in the classic plays and also in the lives of the people with whom he surrounds himself.
This, of course, is a tip-off that the people in “Wonder Wheel,” most pointedly Ginny, are all flawed in ways that will upend their lives. The exception is Mickey, who blithely carries on with Ginny, and then with Carolina, who has no idea that Mickey is two-timing her with her stepmother. Mickey floats above it all.
In a film like “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” probably Allen’s best and darkest “philosophical” movie, the questions of guilt and morality play out in ways that deeply resonate with the characters. In “Wonder Wheel,” the characters are too thinly drawn to support all that cranky fatalism that Allen specializes in. And this includes Winslet’s Ginny, who in some ways comes across like Blanche DuBois from Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” but without the poetry or the pathos. Ginny, instead, specializes in headaches. Allen has summoned up Williams’s play before, in the overrated “Blue Jasmine,” where it was Cate Blanchett’s turn to do a variation on Blanche. But movies don’t become great by association, and “Wonder Wheel” is a far cry from “Streetcar.” There are ample flaws in this film, but they certainly don’t rise to the level of tragic. Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for thematic content including some sexuality, language, and smoking.)