The themes and settings might feel familiar to Woody Allen fans in Wonder Wheel, along with a strong female character who commands the screen.
Still, the dialogue-heavy 1950s melodrama about relationships and redemption might be a better fit on the stage or on the small screen, and feels as though it might have originally been conceived as a play.
Either way, by Allen’s standards, it’s a slight and innocuous effort that lacks the wit and sophistication of his better works, even in the latter half of his prolific career.
The film takes place on Brooklyn’s Coney Island, focusing on Ginny (Kate Winslet), a temperamental ex-actress now waiting tables at a diner within walking distance of the apartment she shares with her alcoholic, carousel-operator husband Humpty (Jim Belushi) and her pyromaniac young son (Jack Gore) from a previous marriage.
They receive a surprise visit from Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty’s estranged daughter seeking refuge after a breakup with her gangster husband has her fleeing from vengeful thugs. Ginny starts an affair with a lifeguard and fledgling writer (Justin Timberlake) that turns sour after she suspects he might really have eyes for Carolina instead.
More than anything, Wonder Wheel — named for the iconic thrill ride that provides a visual backdrop — is an evocative slice of nostalgia that vividly and affectionately captures the bustling sun-drenched beach and boardwalk. The soundtrack is loaded with jazzy pop standards from yesteryear.
However, the result is neither consistently charming nor poignant, and some appealing character-driven moments don’t add up to much.
As with many of Allen’s films, the women tend to fare best, and Winslet’s audacious portrayal benefits from her role being the most fully developed character in the ensemble. Although not quite a train wreck, Ginny is an impulsive red-headed spitfire who’s a difficult target for sympathy as she neurotically navigates a downward spiral.
It almost feels as though Allen is copying himself here, trotting out another story about infidelity, unrequited love and fractured families, and featuring a character who seems to channel the filmmaker himself, in this case the playwright torn between two flames.
Eventually, the constant bickering grows tiresome, to the extent that not even the young arsonist can provide sufficient narrative spark.