Set in New York’s Coney Island in the early 1950s, Wonder Wheel revolves around Ginny (Kate Winslet), a clam house waitress who lives above the amusement park’s shooting range with her second husband, Humpty (Jim Belushi), who runs the merry-go-round, and Richie (Jack Gore), Humpty’s son from a previous marriage, who speaks little and burns everything he can.
All is not well in Coney Island; profits are down, people are leaving the city for the suburbs, vacationing elsewhere, and Ginny and Humpty are barely able to make ends meet. Currently in recovery, but never far from a relapse, Humpty is a man of violent tempers and lousy decision making skill. That might be why Ginny seeks adventure elsewhere — specifically with the Bay 7 lifeguard, Mickey (Justin Timberlake, awkwardly cast) — or maybe Ginny simply can’t get out of her own way. “What’s my one tragic flaw?” she asks Mickey without irony, knowing full well that the fault lay not in our stars, but in our selves.
Into this melodramatic whirlwind blows Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty’s daughter from a previous marriage who ran off with a gangster at an early age against her father’s wishes. Now Carolina needs shelter from the storm — she knows where the bodies are buried — and Humpty and Ginny reluctantly take her in. Then Ginny inadvertently introduces Carolina to Mickey and things go from bad to worse.
There is enough in Wonder Wheel to love and plenty to detest. The cinematography from Vittorio Storaro magnificently captures the golden glow of a sunset, the garish neon of a carnival, and the momentary glory of sunlight slipping between the clouds. The performances from everyone, save Timberlake, are exceptional, and considering director Woody Allen famously offers no direction to his actors, show that Winslet, Belushi, and Temple know exactly what they are doing.
But while Allen offers no direction to his actor, he gives plenty to his audience, wearing Wonder Wheel’s influences on its sleeve: Eugene O’Neill, Mildred Pierce — the casting of Winslet, who starred in Todd Haynes’ 2011 remake isn’t the only clue — and, with increasing discomfort, Allen’s own life and the sexual abuse allegations that stick to the writer/director like Lady Macbeth’s guilt-ridden spot.
It is impossible to shake the baggage Allen brings to Wonder Wheel and hides in plain sight. Mickey, who annoyingly narrates the film from upon high, is a writer who dreams big, starts an affair with the mother before turning his attention to the step-daughter, echoing Allen’s real-life relationship with Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn.
What is Allen attempting to accomplish by restaging these events for the camera? To explain himself? To rationalize his actions? To confess? To ease his conscious? Possibly. It’s almost as if he is using the cinematic canvas to work through the events himself, curiously peering beneath the surface to see what rot lies below. Or maybe he’s just thumbing his nose and doesn’t care who gets burned along the way.