A love triangle between a hunky lifeguard, an ageing ex-actress and her pretty stepdaughter set to a backdrop of ‘50s Coney Island.
Set in Coney Island’s heyday, before it fell foul to seediness and disrepair, Wonder Wheel tells the story of a rather controversial love triangle about a handsome lifeguard, a washed-up actress-turned-waitress and her pretty stepdaughter.
Kate Winslet plays Ginny, a waitress in a clam house along the boardwalk, and ex-actress who is now trapped in an unhappy marriage and working a tiring and thankless job shucking oysters to the Coney Island crowds.
She’s married to carousel operator Humpty (an overweight Jim Belushi looking a lot like John Goodman), a man prone to bouts of violence when he drinks, and she’s raising a pyromaniac pre-teen son (Jack Gore) from her first marriage.
When Humpty’s 20-something daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) turns up unannounced and unwelcome, on the run from her mobster husband, Ginny and Humpty’s shabby apartment, located smack in the middle of the noisy fairground, gets even more cramped.
Unbeknown to fraught Ginny, her arrival is about to spell the end of her extra-marital romance with hunky lifeguard and aspiring writer Mickey (Justin Timberlake).
Mickey serves as the film’s narrator but we also see a lot of the action through Ginny’s eyes, and between them they chart Ginny’s unhappy existence as it goes from bad to worse.
Desperate Ginny comes to see Mickey, with his talent for words and idea of living in Bora Bora, as her way out of the gaudy “honkytonk fairyland” she calls home.
And while Mickey is enjoying their dalliances, his interest in Carolina starts to grow, despite his best efforts to ignore them.
Wonder Wheel, named partly after Coney Island’s real-life big wheel and partly after the film’s futile love story, has moments of real joy, with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s magnificent use of colour a highlight, and production designer Santo Loquasto’s work simply dazzling. Suzy Benzinger's costumes, many of them originals, are also a feast for the eyes, and Allen hasn’t lost his flair for great music choices either.
The film opens like a picture-perfect postcard, offering a snapshot of ‘50s America with blue skies, and a beach jam-packed with a generation free of war and full of hope. Sadly the excitement of the opening credits fades quickly, unlike the film, which drags slowly.
The clunky script leaves you feeling as though you’re watching an intense, and not very good, play at times, and although Winslet does her monologues justice and is utterly convincing as the depressing and delusional Ginny, a lot of her lines are far too wordy.
Timberlake is O.K. as Mickey, though for a character who’s meant to be deep and full of intellect and charm, he comes across as shallow as a Coney Island puddle on a rainy day.
Temple does well, but again the character feels slightly off; her sweet and genuine nature doesn’t fit with her backstory of mob life. Belushi is endearing at times, but mostly too hammy.
On top of the below-par script, the theme as a whole sits uncomfortably, which Allen, who’s married to ex-spouse Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, makes worse with Ginny’s accusations that Humpty has almost romantic-like feelings for Carolina.
While there is no denying Wonder Wheel is a delight for the eyes, the clunky script makes it a drag, and despite their best efforts, the cast fail to save the feature.
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