Kate Winslet is a fine actress, but she can’t do it alone. Writer/director Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel showcases her talent in the plum role of an emotionally frail 1950s waitress whose prospects for happiness are quickly dwindling. However, neither the story nor her castmates are worthy of her abilities. This is a visually splendid yet often mundane movie that’s neither funny nor dramatically interesting.
Winslet’s Ginny once aspired to be an actress, but is now a waitress at Ruby’s Clam Shack on the Coney Island boardwalk. She’s married to Humpty (Jim Belushi), an insensitive brute who runs the merry-go-round and loves fishing. Ginny hates fishing. In fact, she doesn’t seem to have much in common with Humpty at all.
It’s no surprise, then, that Ginny takes a liking to Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a lifeguard on the beach who’s studying for a master’s degree in drama. An affair begins and she sees a future for them, while he … just wants to spend time with Humpty’s daughter from another marriage, Carolina (Juno Temple).
Subplots abound, including Carolina being wanted by mobsters (The Sopranos’ Steve Schirripa and Tony Sirico) and Ginny’s son from another marriage, Richie (Jack Gore), setting fire to everything. The problem is none of it adds up to much. At the end of 101 minutes, you’re left with a shoulder shrug and disappointment rather than the adrenaline rush of great drama.
Allen’s first mistake was making Mickey the narrator. He’s the least interesting character, and Timberlake doesn’t have the dramatic chops to play the role convincingly. It has the same downer effect as Nick Carraway narrating The Great Gatsby — why have someone so dull telling the salacious tale? Even when expressing emotions, Timberlake’s Mickey is a blank slate, and his yearning for Carolina, which we’re supposed to believe is genuine, renders as little more than another conquest for Mickey.
In contrast, you feel every ounce of struggle and heartache in Winslet’s performance. Much is said with the defeated look in her eyes, the frantic nature of her behavior and her desperate body language. The British Winslet also handles the New York accent without taking it too far, and seems to be the only actor on screen who really gets the cadence of Allen’s script.
Kudos, though, to the production design and visual effects work, as it really looks and feels as though it was shot on Coney Island in the ’50s. Allen’s movies aren’t often visually interesting, so if you find yourself taken by the lighting, cinematography (by Vittorio Storaro) and/or production design (Santo Loquasto), you will not be alone. This is probably the most visually accomplished film Allen has made.
Unfortunately, the visuals aren’t enough with Wonder Wheel, which tries to engage you in its heart-wrenching drama and never succeeds. Only Allen die-hards should bother with this one, and even they should proceed with caution.