There are sounds that remind us of summer: the old-timesy jingle of the ice cream truck, sprinklers whizzing back and forth over freshly mowed lawns, darts popping balloons at the state fair. It’s in this sort of blissful cacophony that Woody Allen’s latest period drama, set in 1950s Coney Island, takes place. But Ginny (Kate Winslet), a middle-aged waitress at the local clam shack, has lost all joy in the ring-a-ding-lings of her carnival town. She’s prone to migraines and despair (over the usual stuff: a failed acting career, an unhappy marriage), and with her 40th birthday just around the corner, her miserable existence seems set in stone.
That is until those lazy, hazy summer days get unexpectedly touched by a bit of youthful excitement and danger. The danger comes in the form of 26-year-old Carolina (Juno Temple), Ginny husband Humpty’s (Jim Belushi) estranged daughter. The doe-eyed blonde shows up at the diner one day in a fit of desperation. It turns out dropping out of school and marrying a gangster wasn’t the best of ideas, and now she needs a place to hide.
Ginny isn’t super thrilled to put her ten-year-old son at risk by harboring a marked woman, but to Carolina’s benefit, Ginny is just a bit distracted. What’s a summer film without a summer romance, after all? Mickey (Justin Timberlake) is lifeguarding on his summer off from NYU, and he lights a spark in Ginny. With their instant chemistry and shared love for theater (Mickey is an aspiring playwright), she feels young again. Maybe there’s more to life than the played out merry-go-round of Coney Island.
While Ginny sees Coney Island as a prison, the viewer will probably have an altogether different take. Production designer Santo Loquasto’s sets are dreamy and lyrical — if a crab shack can actually be described as such. From the restaurant to Humpty’s apartment to the boardwalk, these sets feel idyllic and magical, not claustrophobic. The interior designers on those cheesy home decor shows would titillate at this sort of budget. But herein lies the crux of Allen’s message: Someone can live in the middle of paradise and still feel very, very alone. Winslet’s Ginny has no shortage of existential grief. The film plays a lot with color, particularly saturated oranges and blues, complementary colors that play up the intensity of Ginny’s emotions, which swing between an almost adolescent hope for the future and a deranged rage when that hope is shattered.
Ah, things were going so well until our hunky lifeguard discovered another fish in the sea. The much younger Carolina catches Mickey’s attention and unwilling to let her secret of infidelity be known to her husband’s daughter, Ginny tries to squash her competition discreetly. It’s hard to imagine a better choice for this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde role — because, indeed, as time goes on, Ginny does turn rather nasty — than Winslet. She pulls off a Yonkers accent with ease and makes Ginny remarkably complex, at times both pitiable and insufferable, in a film otherwise bogged down with cliché. Her inner turmoil is palpable, and it’s hard not to cheer for her, even as she’s letting her jealousy eat her alive.
Temple, for her part, is thoroughly charming as the prodigal daughter. She’s innocent (despite that pesky gangster exhusband thing) and loving—and more importantly for the role of the goody two shoe—not obnoxious.The scenes between Carolina and Ginny are easily among Wonder Wheel’s most compelling.
Their respective pairings with Mickey, on the other hand, are nowhere near as successful. Justin Timberlake is this film’s Russell Crowe in Les Mis –– a sore thumb in an otherwise pretty solid cast. This is not a profound script. Essentially, it’s just a story about characters with, well, a lot of character, spiraling toward a dramatic conclusion. But in the hands of Winslet, Temple, and Belushi, these characters aren’t just charming but deeply pained, to the point that Wonder Wheel becomes something of a tragedy despite its bright colors and upbeat jingles.
Timberlake takes an entirely different approach to Mickey. He’s a caricature. He delivers his lines with a certain aw-shucks-ness that feels as artificial as the flavoring in the nearby cotton candy. It could work in the right movie. It could work in a parody. But here it just stands in sharp contrast to the deeply felt performances given by his peers. Since Timberlake’s delivery has no emotional depth, it’s hard to know what to think about Mickey, a dilemma that’s only further frustrated by the film’s conclusion.
This reviewer was going to overlook the current political climate regarding men who have been accused of sexual misdeeds — i.e., men like Allen. But Wonder Wheel takes something of an unforgivable twist, at least in the current zeitgeist. You see, Mickey, a guy who is leading two women on at the same time isn’t the bad guy here—it’s Ginny, who by the film’s end makes in unforgivable choice in the name of mad jealousy. What kind of antiquated nonsense is it that Ginny, the woman unhappy in her relationship, in part because her husband beats her when he’s drunk, is Allen’s choice for a villain? I don’t know, but it’s probably the wrong time to release a movie where a victim of domestic violence is the one whom you’re going to demonize.
What saves the film is that regardless of a tone-deaf script, Winslet gives a layered and affecting performance. But even though this film is clearly being released in the Please-Pick-Me-Academy season, Winslet might have a hard time securing a nomination. Between Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water), Meryl Streep (The Post), and Saorise Ronan (Lady Bird), the field is already plenty full, but Winslet’s performance is still worth the price of admission—and there’s plenty more charm around the edges. It’s an engaging film from start to finish, thanks to gorgeous production and an almost universally stellar cast. Just don’t think too hard about what it’s trying to say. Or, like with most things with Allen, you might leave a little angry.