Wonder Wheel Soars, Thanks to Its Excellent Performances


A fantastic world created from imagination and the distant past provides the setting for Wonder Wheel, Woody Allen’s new film about love and dreams set in the middle of a gaudy amusement park in 1950s Brooklyn.

Kate Winslet plays Ginny, a waitress who has abandoned her dreams of a career on the stage for the not-all-that-secure life as the wife of carousel operator and occasional mean drunk Humpty (Jim Belushi). Things are not going well for Ginny; her young son from an earlier relationship is a budding arsonist. To further complicate life, Humpty’s estranged daughter Carolina appears, looking for shelter from her mobster ex-husband. Looking for an escape, Ginny falls into the arms of Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a lifeguard and aspiring playwright who also serves as the film’s understandably unreliable narrator.

As with the award-winning Blue Jasmine, Allen has returned to post-war American drama (Williams, Miller, Inge) for inspiration, but with a freer hand than in the earlier film. Wonder Wheel is shorter on plot but stronger on letting the actors build their characters. There’s almost an improvisational quality, unusual for Allen, as the cast members play against each other.

Kate Winslet excels under Allen's direction. - JESSICA MIGLIO/AMAZON STUDIOS
  • Kate Winslet excels under Allen's direction.

Belushi is genuinely surprising as a kind of helplessly bumbling everyman, the kind of role that might have been given to Karl Malden or Ernest Borgnine in a 1950s equivalent, and British actress Juno Temple balances his intensity with a bubbly naivete. Timberlake, whose acting talent has previously stayed within the grand tradition of pop-star dabbling, is genuinely engaging as the outsider who almost indirectly provokes much of the film’s action.

But as good as they are, Timberlake and the rest are no more than supporting players in the light of two superior performances that propel the film into a stunning collision of down-to-earth realism and stunning fantasy. The first, unsurprisingly, is Kate Winslet, who transforms Ginny from a cocky survivor making the best of her impoverished surroundings to a tragic heroine pulled down by her self-delusions.

Her performance is matched and complemented by the astounding cinematography of Vittorio Storaro, who turns the Brooklyn streets and boardwalks into a fairy-tale landscape and, in a powerful climactic scene, helps Allen and Winslet cross an invisible threshold between reality and theater, between the unhappy details of life and the impulse to transform them into art. It’s a favorite theme of Allen’s, but never has he explored it in such vivid and purely visual terms. While he’s frequently illustrated the conflict between artistic dreams and ordinary obligations, Wonder Wheel takes a more skewed view, leaving it for Ginny — and the viewer — to draw their own conclusions.