“Wonder Wheel” opens with Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a wannabe playwright and current Coney Island lifeguard, staring at the camera and making an excuse on Woody Allen’s behalf: “I relish melodrama and larger-than-life characters,” he says. There are a lot of those in this lush ‘50s romance, one of the more confident Allen pictures of late, but Kate Winslet looms above them all.
As Ginny, a failed actress-turned-clam-bar-waitress yearning for something more, Winslet delivers her most powerful, emotionally resonant performance in more than a decade. Though inevitable comparisons to Cate Blanchett’s fiery turn in Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” hold water, Winslet delivers a softer, melancholic woman, with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s lush, expressionistic camerawork complimenting her poetic anguish. She transforms a bumbling alcoholic caricature who exudes bleak jokes about missed opportunities, injecting her with majestic sadness.
The rest is nothing we haven’t seen before, but it’s nevertheless one of the more confident visits to Allen’s universe in a few years. The postwar Coney Island setting — a staple of Allen’s filmography since the early moments of “Annie Hall” — comes to life with vivid colors, rickety theme-park rides, grimy bars, and smooth jazz. The backdrop harkens back to Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway” and “Radio Days,” hyper-stylized odes to bygone eras in which the visual polish elevates his cavalcade of anxiety-riddled narcissists.
In “Wonder Wheel,” they’re mostly stuffed into a ramshackle apartment adjacent to the boardwalk. That’s where Ginny endures her booze-fueled existence with boorish mechanic husband Humpty (Jim Belushi, alternately zany and abhorrent), and her young son Richie (Jack Gore), who doesn’t say much but struggles with pyromaniac tendencies. In this chaotic mix lands Humpty’s estranged daughter Caroline (an energetic Juno Temple), on the run from the mob after her criminal husband falls into deep trouble. And that’s when Timberlake spots Ginny from his lifeguard perch.
Cue narration: “The dramatist in me sensed she was in some kind of trouble.” While Allen’s tendency toward voiceover often pushes the material into eye-rolling overstatement, here it’s fitting: Ginny’s a histrionic woman lost in her fantasy as a damsel in distress, and Mickey’s just the guy to rescue her. Shrugging off their age difference, he sweeps her off the sand and into a fairy-tale love affair that seems to rescue her from all her domestic woes — until Caroline catches Mickey’s eye as well.
So goes the neatly assembled love triangle, which — like so many Allen movies — careens into a few obvious shouting matches and misguided decisions. There’s no structural ambition to “Wonder Wheel,” but Allen’s script offers enough psychological depth to its central anti-hero that Winslet handily takes it into the finish line, spiking the ball more than once. That’s especially notable in a show-stopping monologue about the decline of her marriage and acting career, delivered with a stunning degree of restraint as the camera sits close to her face, illuminated by moonlight and the ocean’s deep-blue glow behind her. It’s among the very best moments in her extensive career.
The rest of the cast holds their own, though Timberlake’s blinkered stare and Temple’s cartoonish delivery lack the sophistication of Ginny’s central role. Despite its uneven characterizations, “Wonder Wheel” maintains a cogent feel thanks to Storaro’s remarkable color schemes. Almost as much the auteur here as Allen himself, Storaro enlivens the movie’s mood with blue-toned nighttime love scenes, the bright yellows of the the Coney boardwalk, and reddish hues streaming into a bedroom after dark. After one particularly romantic scene, Caroline blurts out, “It was like being in one of those love pictures!” We know what she means.
No matter its vibrant palette, “Wonder Wheel” stands out as a dark, brooding dramedy, one tinged with more overarching sadness than any of Allen’s late-period offerings. Winslet often remains in the frame as characters abandon her offscreen, and the tragedy resonates even as the absurdity of scenario lingers. This is a mesmerizing portrait of being abandoned by the world, fighting for a new role to play, and winding up more alienated than ever before. Say what you want about the storyteller, but the stories speak for themselves, and “Wonder Wheel” proves they still have a lot to say.
“Wonder Wheel” is the closing night entry at the 2017 New York Film Festival. Amazon Studios releases it theatrically on December 1.