Wonder Wheel opens on a high note, with a picture-postcard panorama of Coney Island as it might have looked in a 1950 Kodachrome slide. It’s a vision that Brooklyn-born Woody Allen remembers well, I’m sure. Then we meet our narrator, Justin Timberlake, an aspiring playwright from Brooklyn who works as a lifeguard on the beach. He’s the latest in a long line of Allen surrogates: likable, with a self-admitted tendency to dramatize and romanticize life as he sees it.

Unfortunately there’s nothing romantic or redeeming about the weary, hard-working character played by Kate Winslet. From the moment we meet her she feels a migraine coming on, and pretty soon she manages to pass the ailment on to us. A waitress and single mother who found refuge by marrying a big lug (well played by Jim Belushi), she is congenitally miserable—until she strikes up an affair with Timberlake. Yet even in the midst of this idyll she is incapable of being happy, consumed by jealousy that borders on paranoia. She brings to mind the original title Allen intended for Annie Hall: Anhedonia, an arcane word that means the inability to experience pleasure.

And that’s what’s missing from the movie: pleasure. Allen is apparently trying to channel Eugene O’Neill in his portrayal of this forlorn family, but Wonder Wheel is no Long Day’s Journey Into Night. It’s not even long; it just feels that way.

Ironically, this unhappy ensemble acts out its troubles against a stunningly colorful backdrop created by production designer Santo Loquasto. One could easily wallow in nostalgia for Nathan’s, Carvel, the Wonder Wheel and other Coney Island attractions, if only the film weren’t so downbeat. With Vittorio Storaro behind the camera, this is one of Woody Allen’s handsomest productions in years, yet one of his least satisfying.

To escape this incessant misery, my mind drifted to Woody’s vintage stand-up bit about a gigantic wave that flattened everything in Coney Island except the three milk bottles waiting to be knocked over at his uncle’s concession stand on the boardwalk. That monologue is a comedy classic that will long endure. This film I’d rather forget.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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July 2024