WONDER WHEEL Kate Winslet, Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple. Directed by Woody Allen. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday in select theaters.
It seems that nothing short of death will slow Woody Allen’s one-feature-a-year filmmaking pace, and the 82-year-old writer-director returns right on schedule with Wonder Wheel, another reheated morality play in the vein of his 2015 misfire Irrational Man. Set on New York’s Coney Island in the 1950s, Wonder Wheel starts out relatively breezy, with a miscast Justin Timberlake as Allen’s latest neurotic intellectual, a graduate student and aspiring playwright named Mickey Rubin, making extra money over the summer by working as a lifeguard. Mickey narrates the film and occasionally talks directly to the camera, and his self-professed fondness for melodrama and symbolism comes off as an excuse for Allen’s sloppy, amateurish writing.
Kate Winslet tears into the role of harried, unfulfilled wife and mother Ginny Rannell, who works at a Coney Island diner and lives in an apartment just above the noise and lights of the midway, with her husband Humpty (Jim Belushi) and her young son, a budding pyromaniac. Allen gives Winslet a lot of long, tortured monologues, shooting much of the movie in long takes inside Ginny and Humpty’s cramped apartment. That gives the movie the feel of a stage production, and the storyline about an affair between Ginny and Mickey (who then falls for Ginny’s mob-connected stepdaughter, played by Juno Temple) unfolds like a freshman drama class take on Tennessee Williams.
Timberlake is completely out of place as the brainy, analytical Mickey, and while Winslet brings passion and energy to Ginny, Allen’s dialogue is so stilted and artificial that no amount of Serious Acting can make it convincing or meaningful. Legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro ensures that every frame looks gorgeous, the lurid emotions bathed in the lurid colors of the Coney Island lights, but nothing his camera captures has any genuine life to it.