Justin Timberlake’s lifeguard/grad student, Mickey, wonderfully sets the stage in Woody Allen’s latest film, “Wonder Wheel.” In an opening explanation offered directly to the audience, he explains that we are at Coney Island following the Second World War. It is still a crowded place and still enjoyed, but it is no longer what it once was – it is now a little rough around the edges. Mickey has, he tells us, something of a flair for the dramatic (he wants to be a writer), and this is essentially the story as he wants to tell it, and possibly a little over-dramatic.

What follows is not dramatic as much as it is stage-y. It feels like less than great Tennessee Williams. From the camera shots to the dialogue to the sets, one can almost envision “Wonder Wheel” as a Broadway show as much as a movie.

This is the story of Ginny (Kate Winslet); her unhappy marriage to Humpty (Jim Belushi); the return of Humpty’s daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple); and the romantic ambitions of both women. Plus there’s a bit about Ginny’s son, Richie (Jack Gore), being a pyromaniac that isn’t really explored, but seems to be the theme for the whole movie.

Richie is unable to stop himself from setting these fires. He does it when he should be other places or when he has nothing going on. He does it in places far away from other things that could burn as well as near some that are highly flammable. He does it without ever once explaining to the audience why he is doing it. But, there is the unmistakable sense to it that one day Richie’s fires are going to wreak terrible havoc and quite possibly kill someone.
Everyone else in the film sets fires as well, and they are just as ill-conceived and just as likely to cause horrific damage. Unlike Richie however, these are all metaphorical fires.

“Wonder Wheel” is definitely not a comedy, and yet, Allen (possibly with his own fire) can’t seem to stop from little comedic flourishes. He treats Mickey’s opening as a joke. He treats the pyromania as a joke. When mob associates of Carolina’s husband come to find her (she’s talked to the government about her husband’s work), Allen casts “Sopranos” alums Tony Sirico and Steve Schirripa to play the parts. Over and over again these comedic elements enter the film and work at cross-purposes with it.

Ginny is unquestionably the empathetic center of the film – she is a former actress, one who felt herself destined for great things but who now plays the part of a waitress working at a clam house on the boardwalk. She laments the life she lost, her long gone first husband, and the potential for greatness she gave up years ago. Although Winslet makes us feel her pain for much of the film, the character’s woe-is-me attitude can wear thin at times.

Humpty, too, is a shell of what he was during his prior marriage, his first wife having passed away. The return of Carolina, whom he shunned for marrying a mobster, brings life back into this recovering alcoholic who spends his work hours running the carousel and off hours fishing.

“Wonder Wheel” is big on telling us how Ginny and Humpty pulled each other up from their respective morasses, but those days, too, are long gone. There may be love there, but is a quiet, sad, love, a resigned love.

The only life in the house is Carolina, a young woman actively trying to make her life better and move on from past mistakes rather than just wallowing in what might have been. She is a ray of sunlight that Humpty latches onto (with the occasional uncomfortable allusion, particularly with Allen as filmmaker), and which Ginny wants to snuff out.

This last, of course, is due to both women’s affection for Mickey, but Timberlake’s poet-philosopher-lifeguard feels out of place in this movie, as though he thought he had a part in one of Allen’s comedies. He doesn’t. This isn’t.

The audience then watches some wonderfully lit, quite dramatic, moments play out as the members of the house slowly sink into the quicksand that their lives have become. Each can see some of the whole picture, a portion of the problem, but only the audience has the full view.

Love and life and money and careers are universal enough themes to explore, but Allen doesn’t have much insight to offer. Everyone feels doomed from the get go and that doesn’t change. They are Coney Island, their best days are behind them, and that includes Mickey who saw Bora Bora during the war. They are all Richie, setting fire to their lives despite knowing better and staring into the flames.

“Wonder Wheel” feel like a lamentation for what we have lost, but isn’t always clear about what, exactly, is gone. There is a definite sense that the memories everyone has of their glory days are rose-colored. It even seems to want to paint the loss of the in-decline Coney Island (that is, the Coney Island depicted here as opposed to the Coney Island which exists today) as something unfortunate. Over the course of the film, hope for the future is beaten out of these characters. What starts as a potentially amusing diversion turns into something dark and depressing… except for when Allen decides to throw in half a joke.
While dark and depressing can make for a good movie, here it does not. Winslet is excellent, and her scenes with Temple are very good, but there feels like little exploration of the subject. It is neither pro-past nor pro-future, it is almost anti-life.

Like Richie with his fires, it can be difficult to look away, but staring into the flames doesn’t help either.

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photo credit: Amazon Studios