Coney Island holds specific importance to Woody Allen. In Annie Hall, he posited that Alvie Singer, the director’s protagonist and proxy, was raised below the area’s famed beachside rollercoaster, which created literal instability to mirror the emotional instability he felt as a child. Right there, Allen connected his unfathomable neuroses and his own personal history as part and parcel with his need to entertain.
Allen returns to the oceanside community for an extended stay in his latest movie, Wonder Wheel, which features another family essentially living within the sprawl of rides, games, and restaurants that line the Coney Island boardwalk. Cloistered in a small apartment above a rifle game with the titular ferris wheel monopolizing the view from their front windows, Ginny and Humpty (Kate Winslet and Jim Belushi) have settled into a rhythm as a married couple, working small local jobs and raising Ginny’s arsonist pre-adolescent son, Richie (Jack Gore). As Allen presents their lives following the return of Humpty’s daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), their day-to-day dramas are just as gaudy and theatrical as the mild pleasures one would get from the bumper cars or a game of whack-a-mole.
Wonder Wheel may in fact be Allen’s most expressive and least subtle feature in at least a decade. It’s built off a relatively simple premise — Ginny and Carolina both fall for Mickey Rubin (Justin Timberlake), a lifeguard and the film’s narrator — but Allen cares less about the secrecy and sex of the situation than he does about the untamable desires that either guide his characters’ lives or completely detonate them. Allen goes as far as to nearly literalize the rush of fiery desire and cold isolation of repression in purposefully discordant use of lighting. Eruptions of red, orange, and yellow overwhelm Winslet when Ginny’s passions for Mickey or mere escape from her life with Humpty, and then those fiery reflections will quickly dissipate to icy blues, grays, and blacks.
Allen’s style in Wonder Wheel is purposefully neither as seductive or fluid as it was in Cafe Society, Irrational Man, or Crisis in Six Scenes. There’s no effort to romanticize the setting, the city, or the characters in his compositions, and it speaks to the infuriating stasis that Allen’s characters are stuck in. Much of the talk between Ginny, Mickey, Carolina, and Humpty pivots on past moments that were dictated by unrelenting passions or a severe fear of them, including Ginny’s marriage to Richie’s father, a jazz drummer, and Carolina’s former marriage to a powerful mafia honcho. What Allen grasps firmly is just how unforgiving time and luck can be, and how easy it is to hurt or even kill someone when the indifference of those forces becomes too much to bear.
What he’s missing is muscle. Part of the plot involves Carolina being stalked by a pair of toughs (Tony Sirico and Steve Schirripa) working for her ex-husband, who she informed on to the Feds. Other than the love triangle, that’s all that holds the movie together and there’s an anecdotal feel to the overall story. Wonder Wheel comes off as a complex moral parable, one that nonetheless lacks the emotional depth and symbolic audacity that render the messages of such stories so striking. He succeeds greatly in detailing the working neighborhood of Coney Island, or at least the area around the boardwalk, but there’s purposefully little sense of the world outside of that. The characters feel cloistered but for no thoroughly convincing reason.
If it weren’t for Winslet and, to a lesser extent, Belushi, the severe lack of emotional intensity and intimacy would make Wonder Wheel one of Allen’s flimsiest outings. And yet, when Winslet must face her decision to put Carolina in danger in the name of romantic obsession, she imbues Allen’s composition with a sense of radiating desperation and moral panic, inner pain and regret that rages like hellfire. Belushi, who is having a bit of a year between this and Twin Peaks, has the natural bearing and attitude of a lummox, which he plays up but also makes moves to subvert. Far away from his abysmal TV work, the actor reveals a yearning for redemption in Humpty and a thorny thicket of emotional history to the cuckolded mechanic.
Temple and Timberlake do admirable work with their characters but Allen does not write young characters well, or at least not with the resonance and sense of confession that he gives his adult characters. He’s an old man who has never had to answer fully for his actions, thanks largely to his wealth, celebrity, and overwhelming privilege. This is not the man you want writing your bookish, hunky lifeguard, even if that lifeguard is living in the 1950s. With Ginny and Humpty, however, unrelenting guilt and regret can be felt palpably in the language as much as Winslet and Belushi’s physical performances. Their scenes, especially in the film’s second half, are unshakeable. They are not the only reason that Wonder Wheel works but they evoke the lived-in feeling and emotional clarity that are at the heart of Allen’s best films, like a rickety home amidst a roaring carnival.
Wonder Wheel will be released by Amazon Studios on December 1st.