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D: Woody Allen / 101m

Cast: James Belushi, Juno Temple, Justin Timberlake, Kate Winslet, Max Casella, Jack Gore, David Krumholtz

At one point in Wonder Wheel, Mickey (Timberlake), a lifeguard at Coney Island (and the movie’s narrator), gives Ginny (Winslet), the married woman he’s having an affair with, a book of plays by Eugene O’Neill for her birthday. Once upon a time, Ginny was an aspiring actress, until she met and married a drummer. That relationship ended when she had an affair, and now she’s in the process of cheating on her second husband, ‘Humpty’ (Belushi), a carousel operator. Ginny works as a waitress in a restaurant on the boardwalk; she’s already unhappy in her marriage, and has a young son from her first marriage, Richie (Gore), who likes to set fires. She’s struggling to hold onto her hopes and dreams, and Mickey’s attentions are a way for her to do that. Fast approaching forty, and trapped in a marriage of convenience, Ginny is desperately looking for happiness. But a book of O’Neill’s plays? How much more of a clue as to whether or not Ginny will find the happiness she seeks does an audience need?

Woody Allen’s latest is one of his serious movies, a drama that starts off by showing the surface glamour of Coney Island in the 1950’s, before quickly going behind the scenes and revealing the hardships and the despair that exist just a short distance from the lights and the attractions. ‘Humpty’ has a daughter, Carolina (Temple), who left home five years before to marry a gangster. Now she’s back, having left him but also having been “marked”; she’s hoping her established estrangement from her father will mean no one will look for her there. But when Carolina meets Mickey, Ginny sees her chance for happiness coming under threat. Ginny’s desperation increases, and her behaviour becomes more erratic than usual. Unable to help herself, Ginny begins to alienate everyone around her, and when the opportunity arises to do the right thing, the decision she makes has profound, and irreversible, consequences. It’s a simple premise, confidently set up and handled by Allen, but also one that feels more like an abandoned stage play than an original screenplay. This also means the movie has the look of a theatrical production at times, and Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography stutters back and forth between interior and exterior scenes with all the dexterity of an artist who can’t decide on natural or artificial light.

But production issues aside, this is Winslet’s movie through and through. Ginny is an emotional trainwreck, only taking responsibility for her actions when it will bring her sympathy, and defending herself by attacking others. She’s an ersatz Blanche DuBois, hurting instead of loving, and Winslet gives a driving, intense performance that is in many ways out of place within the movie because it overhadows everything else that Allen comes up with. And Winslet is on such tremendous form that her co-stars have no choice but to run to keep up. Belushi and Temple are good in roles that aren’t quite as well developed as Winslet’s, but Timberlake is the odd man out as Mickey. He never looks comfortable in the role, and in his scenes with Winslet, the gulf between them is highlighted every time. In the end, Allen elects to leave many of the sub-plots and storylines unresolved, especially the one involving Richie, which goes nowhere and seems included just to pad out the running time. Otherwise, the movie’s open-endedness proves unexpectedly satisfying, and though this may not be a prime example of Allen’s more recent output, thanks to Winslet’s superb performance, it’s a movie that deserves a look, if for no other reason than that.

Rating: 7/10 – featuring Winslet on incredible form, Wonder Wheel tells its story as if it had been written in the 1950’s but has been given a modern day makeover; the milieu has been lovingly recreated by production designer Santo Loquasto, Allen remains a dependable if unexciting visual artist, and for once the romance doesn’t have such a pronounced age gap.

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