Woody Allen’s latest movie opens on a cluttered beach on Coney Island in the 1950s, a canvas so teeming with people we almost expect to see Waldo among its frolicking, sun-tanning ranks. We do get Justin Timberlake as Mickey, a lifeguard who doubles as the movie’s narrator, and who moonlights as an aspiring playwright. Because he favors the language of the stage, “Wonder Wheel” will contain its share of “symbols, melodrama and larger-than-life characters.”
Fair enough, but even with this established cover against authenticity, “Wonder Wheel” is one of Allen’s most self-indulgent and unconvincing psychodramas. Its tone is one of Tennessee Williams-style hothouse theatrics, if Tennessee Williams hated women.
At least it’s pretty to look at, with legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro evoking the bygone fantasyland of Coney Island with delicacy and whimsy. Few camera artisans are better at capturing sunlight filtering through curtains and glinting off roller coasters. In this halcyon environment, Ginny (Kate Winslet) and Humpty (Jim Belushi) eke out a loveless marriage. He’s a recovering alcohol and domestic abuser who runs the merry-go-round; she’s a broken former actress who toils at the Coney Island crab shack. Together they raise Richie (Jack Gore), a pint-sized pyromaniac cinephile from Ginny’s previous marriage. Yes, it’s as precious as it sounds.
The presence of two younger characters will soon upend their lives. Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty’s estranged daughter, appears at the amusement park on the lam from her gangster boyfriend, putting all of their lives in danger. And Mickey, whom we soon learn has been having a torrid affair with Ginny, takes a shine to Carolina, sending Ginny into an emotional tailspin.
The self-awareness of this conceit is brazen. The charismatic male abandoning the more age-appropriate partner (Timberlake is 36 to Winslet’s 42) for her younger stepdaughter has a creepily confessional subtext; it’s like O.J. Simpson writing If I Did It.
But put that angle aside, if you can. The problems of “Wonder Wheel” are deeper and more fundamental, expressing a festering misogynistic worldview that many of Allen’s critics have been pointing out for decades. I’ve been one of his celebrants, struggling to defend his filmmaking even during the mostly wayward Aughts, with its parade of stories about barely nubile women seduced by, and falling senselessly for, men twice their age. But “Wonder Wheel” foregrounds this chauvinism, pitifully failing the Bechdel Test and registering as utterly tone-deaf to the women’s empowerment movement that’s sweeping the nation.
To wit: Both of the women in “Wonder Wheel” are damsels in need of rescuing, whose worth is judged by the men in their circumference. Ginny, in particular, operates solely on emotion, embodying the irrational stereotypes that proliferated in pre-feminist thought. She makes decisions about her love life on impulses, whereas the cool and collected Mickey arrives at his conclusions by playing chess with a philosopher colleague introduced into the screenplay like some deus ex machina. Seriously.
All of which will sink this movie’s farfetched Oscar aspirations, though it’s not for lack of effort on the part of Allen’s cast. Belushi continues his career resurgence from this summer’s “Twin Peaks” revival, effectively portraying an abusive galoot naïve to the maelstrom occurring within his wife’s psyche. And Winslet invests fully in her character’s breakdown, in a studious performance whose slow plummet into madness is handled with aching gradations.
But the challenge of Allen’s clumsy, stilted script is too much for any actor to overcome. “Wonder Wheel” offers one of Allen’s purplest scripts to date. Of her ex-husband, a jazz musician, Ginny tells Mickey that “he was a drummer whose rhythm pulsated with life.” Later, in the throes of a potential crime of passion, she manages to exclaim to Mickey, “You’ve suddenly adopted a rather supercilious tone of voice.”
Timberlake, for his part, is subjected to turkeys like this one, to Temple’s streetwise character: “I have book knowledge, but you’ve really tasted life.” Nobody would say something like that—not now, not in the ‘50s, not ever. It’s high time for Allen to hang up his shingle.
“Wonder Wheel” opens today in most area theaters.