“Coney Island, the 1950s,” our narrator introduces. What kind of person tells you what decade it is and not the year? That’s our first tip that what we’re about to see is meant to be taken as elastic narrative, more allegorical than believable, more drama than real life. That, plus the second thing he says: “I use symbols. I relish melodrama and larger than life characters.”
Our narrator is Mickey Rubin, an aspiring playwright and later-in-life student at NYU thanks to a stint in the Navy. This clearly Jewish character is played by the extremely not-Jewish Justin Timberlake, perhaps another layer of writer-director Woody Allen’s fantasy. Rubin is a fit, good-natured lifeguard and more than just a witness to the tale of woe he’s about to tell us.
It’s the homecoming of Carolina (Juno Temple), a worried young woman running away from her abusive, mob-connected husband. She and her father, nicknamed Humpty (Jim Belushi), haven’t spoken in five years, and she’s never even met his new wife Ginny (Kate Winslet). Carolina broke Humpty’s heart by marrying “that greaseball,” especially as it was against her mother’s dying wishes. But of course he’s going to take her back in (at least after he lays on an awful lot of guilt) and soon she joins the cramped, boardwalk-facing apartment that also fits Richie (Jack Gore), Ginny’s young pyromaniac son Richie.
The apartment used to house a freakshow (one of the rooms still has a box office window), sits above one of those air rifle ranges and is drenched from the neon of an enormous Ferris wheel. That’s lucky for us in the audience, as much of “Wonder Wheel” plays out like it could have worked just as well on the stage. The oceanfront apartment means each scene gets its own blast of differently hued light, a non-verbal commentary on every dramatic spin. Each monologue gets a scene partner in legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. (This production is a heck of a boost for geriatric vitality: Storaro is 77, Allen is 81.)
Kate Winslet’s Ginny (who is very much the star of this picture, a similar role to Cate Blanchett in Allen’s 2013 film “Blue Jasmine”) was once an actress, but her drummer-husband left her when she had an affair. She met the carousel operator Humpty, and he was supportive of her, as she was of him when he tried to kick his drinking habit. He’s mostly succeeded at that. (“Why does he hit you?” Richie asks Ginny. “Well, when he drinks he hits everybody,” she shrugs.) She’s trying to keep it together, working a demeaning job in a clam restaurant, but the truth is when Humpty is out fishing, she’s sneaking away with the younger lifeguard, Mickey. Things get more complicated when the very beautiful Carolina steps into the picture.
Mickey’s fascination with kitchen sink playwrights like Eugene O’Neill certainly sets the bar high, but its here where “Wonder Wheel”’s cinematic aspects give it a boost. The shots of Winslet and Timberlake making love under the boardwalk are visual poetry, and while all the performances are terrific, this is very much Winslet’s show. The camera loves her and when she’s feeling confident she is luminous. When she’s feeling low and about to crack, she steps into one of those harsh beams of light that penetrate that apartment and looks freakish. This is a very deliberately crafted film.
Its debut at the New York Film Festival this weekend could not have had worse timing. The film community, especially here, is undergoing a long overdue self-examination due to the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations. It’s one thing to rant at President Trump and his repulsive “locker room talk.” It’s another thing when one of the most important pillars of the community has been exposed as a criminal. It’s doubly worse when so many people say they knew, or had an inclination, and recognize that they never did anything.
This has nothing specifically to do with “Wonder Wheel,” but it’s the mood right now, and mixed with lower-level scandals at Los Angeles’ Cinefamily, it’s just not the right time to be thinking about Woody Allen and the long-festering accusations about his alleged repulsive behavior. (At the press screening I joked that I came in around the back so no one would recognize me.) The point is that this film, its performances and especially the cinematography are absolutely top notch, but don’t expect too many Oscar nominations. I think everyone just wants this movie to go away.
And what could be a more fitting, tragic ending for these characters? All their struggles swept away by the stronger tides of Fate. It’s just the sort of doomed story Mickey Rubin loves to tell.