WONDER WHEEL, written and directed by Woody Allen falls flat. It is redeemed - only slightly - by the nostalgic soundtrack and the overly-saturated colors blanching out the inherent seediness of Coney Island in the 1950’s. I am familiar with the intensely restless lure of hot summer days at the beach, having ridden the A train for up to 2 hours from my family’s Washington Heights apartment with groups of friends to the gritty sands fingering the wide expanse of the Atlantic Ocean - though Rockaway and Orchard Beach in the Bronx were my destinations. Shops nestled into the makeshift enclaves of the boardwalk wooing us with games of chance, hawking prizes that when we finally won - felt like jewels; “making out” under the boardwalk where it was dark and dank, the sunlight creating stripes on our exposed arms and legs was a familiar “go to” place - our hearts and groins throbbing.
Alas, I felt none of the above ambiance in Allen’s latest movie - despite the gorgeous backdrop. Wonder Wheel is a melodrama replete with gangsters, a dreamer poet, a wife-beating drunk and a failed actress as well as a strange pyromaniac child - “symbols” of thwarted “fate” - a point repeatedly stated by the earnest, lightweight poet Mickey portrayed by a cooly detached Justin Timberlake who is having an affair with the frustrated housewife, Ginny ( a harried Kate Winslett) who is turning 40 years old, mired in a miserable marriage, working as a waitress instead of pursuing her thespian ambitions, and in a constant state of hysteria which quickly becomes boring and repetitive losing its emotional impact. What has happened to Allen’s originality with language? Instead, the actors resort to over-the-top Brooklyn accents - a contrivance that is a blanket smothering the insipid dialogue with affectation.
Juno Temple plays Caroline, a beautiful young woman, the most complex and fully written character in Wonder Wheel - with her shining blonde hair gleaming like a star, fleeing to her working-class father (Jim Belushi) and stepmother in Coney Island where she hides out from pursuing mobsters becoming the fulcrum for the ensuing narratives.
Woody Allen has been relying on “place” (envisioned by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro) and recruiting wonderful actors in minor roles to enrich his most recent works, but I get a sense that no one’s heart is in this film least of all Woody Allen. Wonder Wheel feels like a “one-off” - the requisite yearly production that keeps this once great director occupied. Questions of betrayal, aging, the illusion of creativity’s power, and ultimately the direction that our lives take - all these issues are brushed up against with the lightest of touch, but never held in a firm generous grasp.