Wonder Wheel could be the last we see of sexual abuse allegation sponge Woody Allen. Radioactive as it is, his farewell at least makes for a beautiful picture.
A faded postcard of 1950s Coney Island brought to life, it’s a potent melodrama starring Jim Belushi as Humpty, a hard-working but flabby carousel owner. Kate Winslet plays Ginny, his wife burdened with regrets over her lost youth. Juno Temple is Carolina, the grown up daughter of Humpty’s first marriage, who comes between a charged affair between Ginny and the film’s narrator, a lifeguard played by Justin Timberlake.
It’s a contorted little drama of sex, sadness and jealousy, and it all feels a little well-trodden, not to mention a little close to real-life for Allen, who famously married his adoptive daughter. His script is big and stagey and verbose, loaded with exposition and meandering, fretful monologues filmed in long and creeping close-ups. To its detriment it lacks much in the way of humour, the backdrop of all the fun of the fair serving only to contrast the lugubrious little cast of characters.
Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro paints the faces of Winslet and Timberlake in the honeyed glows of beach sunsets and red neon lights, while playful visual elements are found everywhere.
But the characters inhabiting this charmed recollection of a honky tonk fairyland ultimately circle around one another and go nowhere, like horses on a carousel. The story is old fashioned and lacklustre, and nobody feels like listening to the man who’s telling it.