If the new Woody Allen movie Wonder Wheel was a musician, he would be tone-deaf. This angsty tale of lives of not-so-quiet desperation on the boardwalk at Coney Island seems unable to decide from scene to scene what kind of movie it wants to be. Because the preview trailer emphasized comic one-liners and vivid colors (the setting is the 1950s), viewers might expect a nostalgic coming-of-age comedy in the vein of Radio Days.
And Allen’s storytelling instincts are indeed so steeped in comedy, he resorts to a lot of the same shtick, even when he’s trying to tell a serious story. Here he trots out the usual suspects—a perpetually aggravated protagonist, romantic misadventures, a pretty but disruptive young woman, scary mobsters. But the problem with Wonder Wheel isn’t that the comic and serious elements can’t coexist; the problem is the story is emotionally uninvolving, whichever way it’s told.
Our narrator is Mickey (a jaunty Justin Timberlake), a handsome young lifeguard at the beach. After a stint in the Navy, he aspires to become a writer, and so is well-positioned to observe the characters in the story—until his own part in the drama turns out to be not so dispassionate. Mickey has recently begun an affair with Ginny (Kate Winslet). A careworn waitress at the clam house who once dreamed of an acting career, she blossoms under Mickey’s attention.
But Ginny is married to a big lug named Humpty (Jim Belushi), who operates the carousel. Humpty is a recovering alcoholic who took in Ginny and her young son after her first husband left her. She’s grateful to him, but disappointed in the marriage, now stuck in the “honky-tonk fairyland” of Coney Island, in a crummy walk-up apartment on the boardwalk itself (metaphor alert: the building used to house the freak show), under the neon glow of the Wonder Wheel Ferris wheel.
So things are already tense when Carolina (Juno Temple) arrives. Humpty’s daughter by his first marriage, Carolina became estranged from her father when she fell in love with a slick mobster at age 20 and ran off with him. Now the Feds are closing in, and Carolina is a “marked woman,” on the run from Mafiosi out to silence her before she can testify. Her enmity with her father was so well-known, she figures that’s the last place they’ll look for her. More problematic is the fallout when Carolina meets Mickey.
But the tone is off from the start, beginning with Carolina’s arrival, where she, Humpty, and Ginny argue about her marriage and what they’re going to do now. It feels like improv, where the actors have been coached in what kinds of things to say, but not given a script, so they just keep repeating the same points over and over. It happens again when Ginny pesters Carolina about what happened in a chance meeting with Mickey, and keeps saying the same thing again and again.
Also, we’ve seen most of these characters and incidents before, done better—mostly by Allen himself. With a career as long and prolific as Allen’s, of course there’s going to be some overlap in thematic content. But he doesn’t bring anything more meaningful to the story this time around. When Ginny has a full-on Blanche DuBois moment of romantic delusion, complete with fancy gown and jewelry, it’s as if Allen forgot he already did his own take on A Streetcar Named Desire in Blue Jasmine.
Allen gets a lot of mileage out of the setting (a giant poster “Coney Island Barrel of Laffs” is a nice, ironic touch). And it’s shot beautifully by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro—especially when Ginny is transformed by soft lighting and warm colors in her scenes with Mickey. (Although a scene when her face is bathed in shifting neon colors from outside in the middle of a big speech is a little distracting.)
But the weird rhythms of the dialogue and the familiarity of the characters finally keep us from ever feeling invested in their story.
**(out of four)
With Kate Winslet, Jim Belushi, Juno Temple, and Justin Timberlake.
Written and directed by Woody Allen. An Amazon Studios release.
Rated PG-13. 101 minutes.