Woody Allen has turned the tables on those who criticize him for his penchant toward having older men in love with younger women in his films. In “Wonder Wheel” it is an older woman in love with a young hunk.
As usual, Allen’s new film set in 1950 Coney Island is beautifully filmed—the cinematographer is Vittorio Storaro—and gorgeous to look at. Kate Winslet gives a colorful, dynamic performance as Ginny, who is approaching 40 and is the frustrated wife of James Belushi as Humpty, who operates a carousel as the two try to make a living along the Coney Island boardwalk. Ginny labors as a waitress in a clam joint.
Ginny has a 10-year-old son, Richie (Jack Gore) from her former marriage, and Allen finds humor in the kid’s being an incipient firebug who likes to set things ablaze, a running gag in the film. Ginny is frustrated emotionally and sexually and, longing for romance and an upswing in her life, is ripe for an affair.
Things take an exciting but forbidden turn when Justin Timberlake as Mickey, a war vet studying to write plays but working as a lifeguard, and Ginny get hot for each other. Allen gives the character of Mickey the job of narrating to frame the story.
Belushi also delivers a strong performance. The situation is complicated by Humpty’s daughter, Carolina, played by Juno Temple. They have been estranged, and as the as plot spins, she is hunted by mobsters with her life in danger. She married a gangster against her father’s advice and, having turned informer to the FBI, is now hunted by thugs assigned to kill her.
That would seem enough of a plot, but life gets even more entangled when Mickey is attracted to Carolina, which bodes ill for the older Ginny, Carolina’s step mother. Allen’s screenplay meshes the ingredients with suspense, all the while being true to the characters he has created.
In “Wonder Wheel” the main thrust is drama, but punctuated with the humor that comes from our observing the characters and the trouble they get into from our safe distance. More specific humor comes from the kid firebug bit. Overall there is an undercurrent of romanticism abetted by the glimpse into Coney Island past. This may not be Allen’s strongest film, but it is certainly enjoyable, even moving at times, and further evidence that this most prolific of American directors continues to hone his skills and entertain us. An Amazon Studios release. Reviewed December 1, 2017.