A year after Woody Allen atoned for the emptiness of Café Society with his silly Amazon series Crisis in Six Scenes, the legendary filmmaker takes another big step back with Wonder Wheel and again raises the question of whether he has quality stories left to tell.
Seemingly made using a game of Mad Libs specially tailored toward the writer/director’s familiar thematic leanings, with the exception of another throwback setting and getting to play with alluring period detail, the frequently unpleasant drama makes one wonder why Allen felt this particular story should make it to the screen.
Prospects don’t feel quite so dim in the film’s opening shot, a color-splashed marvel featuring the beach of 1950s Coney Island. The same goes for narration by Justin Timberlake as Mickey, a lifeguard and aspiring playwright, and his tale of unhappy waitress Ginny (Kate Winslet, doing all she can with the material), with whom he’s having an affair.
But while scenes bathed in artificially rich hues come to be one of Wonder Wheel’s lone positive qualities, as the story advances and his appearances stack up, the limited Timberlake reveals himself to be horribly miscast to the point of dreading his presence.
Ginny’s dreams of leaving her second husband Humpty (a respectable Jim Belushi) for Mickey are fairly boilerplate for an Allen film, and so are the complications that stem from Humpty’s daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) showing up seeking refuge from her mobster husband’s murderous goons.
Though scattered chuckles come courtesy of Ginny’s pyromaniac son Richie (Jack Gore), the bulk of the film is spent stuck with the heroine and her tragic ambitions — struggles that garner only so much sympathy due to thin characterization.
Predictable to the end, Wonder Wheel makes one yearn for another Allen performance (Crisis in Six Scenes’ not-so-secret weapon) or a new inspiration to strike, much like the filmmaker’s mid-aughts European renaissance, the fumes from which have all but evaporated.
Maybe it’s time for him to set a film in Africa or Asia before it’s too late.
Grade: C. Rated PG-13. Now playing at Grail Moviehouse