The wordy Woody Allen has produced a weirdly theatrical series of monologues and strung them together into “Wonder Wheel,” which revisits the concept of living at Coney Island literally under a roller coaster that he introduced to much more memorable effect in his masterwork, “Annie Hall.”
In that film, Alvy Singer, played by Allen, harkens back to his childhood and, admitting he’s probably exaggerating, claims in a whimsical flashback that he grew up under the Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island. Allen is certainly exaggerating in this latest film, too, which marries an interesting visual style with melodramatic but still affecting performances. Justin Timberlake stands in for Allen as Mickey, the intellectual, fourth wall-breaking narrator who is also a central character.
In “Wonder Wheel,” Kate Winslet plays a miserable woman living with her husband and son on Coney Island in the 1950s. A former actress obsessed with regret over her first marriage to the father of her son, she is now hanging by a thread with the help of somewhat decent but brutish “Humpty” (Jim Belushi), whose job is to run the carousel. Coney Island itself is seedy and on the skids, and so are they.
Belushi’s performance and his character are surprisingly compelling, and the story cuts him a lot more slack than it does Winslet. Both actors commit fully to their roles, and Winslet’s efforts never falter, even when she must act out the most hackneyed versions of the fury of a woman scorned.
When Belushi’s grown daughter from his first marriage comes to live with them — an attractive woman named Carolina whose marriage to a gangster caused her father to disown her — Winslet is none too happy to welcome another set of problems into their home. She has to keep Humpty, the recovering alcoholic, on the wagon, and her red-haired little son, shoehorned into a blatantly allegorical role in the film, is an unrepentant firebug. Given far too little attention by his mom, he has no choice but to further the film’s plot by setting a fire every time someone in the movie gives way to the fires of passion, accompanied by a recurring song about that exact same thing.
Timberlake actually fits into his role as Mickey, a fit younger lifeguard bringing sexy back to Winslet’s grim existence when they launch a beautifully lit summertime love affair. Despite his fame as a singer, Timberlake works well in period films somehow, and I thought his folk singer in the Coen Brothers’ period film “Inside Llewyn Davis” was surprisingly perfect.
You’ll never guess who Mickey starts to become attracted to instead of the desperate Kate Winslet character, but I’ll give you a hint: the parallels between Allen’s own forbidden love for the step-daughter of his girlfriend and the plot of this story are awfully blatant.
Given that Allen has finally seemed to catch a reckoning for the scandals of his personal life, and that actors seem to be required to disavow him now, “Wonder Wheel” might be his last chance to make viewers uncomfortable with nakedly self-referential storylines. For years he cast himself in May-December romances on screen while married to the daughter of his former girlfriend, but this may finally be the year people have lost their taste, or their tolerance, for the trope of the dirty old man.
“Wonder Wheel” is currently available to rent.