MOVIE REVIEW: Wonder Wheel a carnival of the desperate
A new Woody Allen film comes around every year like Christmas, or (as is increasingly the case) like visits to the dentist. But the octogenarian one-time funnyman, who disappoints way more often than he delights, still has a few tricks up his sleeve. His new movie is one of his better efforts of late, despite being one of the darkest.
The setting is Coney Island, the famous beachside fun park in Brooklyn, in the 1950s. Ginny (Kate Winslet) is a waitress at Ruby's Clam House - on the cusp of 40, perpetually exhausted and prone to migraines. And well she might be: she lives in the shadow of a Ferris wheel, and the neon and noise from sideshows are constant intruders into her house.
Ginny is unhappily married to Humpty (Jim Belushi), who operates a carousel and struggles to stay off the booze, which makes him abusive. Money is tight, and Ginny's young son from a previous marriage, Richie (Jack Gore), is skipping school to go to the movies and play with matches. If that weren't enough trouble, Humpty's estranged daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) arrives, one step ahead of a gangster's goons, needing somewhere to hide out.
There is one bright spot in Ginny's harried life: she's having an affair with a lifeguard called Mickey (Justin Timberlake), trysting with him under the boardwalk whenever rain relieves him of his beachside duties. We know this because Mickey himself confesses it to us in his capacity as narrator. An aspiring playwright, Mickey gazes down upon the world from the high perch of his lifesaver's chair, as if he were the author of all the drama.
Timberlake's sardonic presence gives a downbeat film plenty of pep, but the film belongs to Winslet, playing a role not dissimilar to the one Allen wrote for Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine. Ginny is a character straight out of a Tennessee Williams play, full of regrets and only too aware that her attractions, like Coney Island's, are going to seed. Wonder Wheel charts her decline from desperation to something much worse, and Winslet plays it to the hilt.
Making her even more watchable is glorious cinematography by veteran lensman Vittorio Storaro, who bathes all the roller coasters, beach umbrellas and A-line dresses in magnificent, golden light.
Perhaps you were hoping for a few laughs? They're in short supply here. Little Richie's fondness for lighting fires at first raises a chuckle, until we realise that the boy is acting out against real traumas. The movie is a merry-go-round minus the merry.
Wonder Wheel opens on Thursday.
Stars: Kate Winslet, Jim Belushi, Juno Temple, Justin Timberlake.
Director: Woody Allen
Verdict: 3.5 stars