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.