Kate Winslet is a waitress in 1950s Coney Island, unhappily married to schlubby amusement park worker Jim Belushi, whom she met after losing her first husband over an affair. They live among the attractions on the boardwalk with her pyromaniac son and are eventually joined by Belushi's daughter, played by Juno Temple, who has run afoul of her gangster boyfriend and is hiding out in Coney Island. Overwhelmed by the noise and hustle and bustle of life on the boardwalk, and desperate to escape the reality of her dead-end situation, Winslet strikes up an affair with handsome, intellectual lifeguard Justin Timberlake, but his affections soon drift toward her step-daughter instead, causing a major rift.
I really wanted to enjoy this one more than I did. I had watched Magic in the Moonlight the night before, and that one was exactly what I expected, for better or worse. I had higher expectations of Wonder Wheel, though, and it didn't live up to them. Wonder Wheel is a more ambitious film than Magic in the Moonlight, so its shortcomings were more striking to me.
On the surface, this seems like it would be the kind of material perfectly suited to Allen, with the nostalgic 1950s Coney Island setting and family dynamics. Vittorio Storaro's cinematography is certainly striking here, but also stands out at times for the wrong reasons, becoming almost distracting in its showiness in contrast with the material. The production design is impressive but also too often obviously artificial. Although it's obviously a stylized evocation of an idea of a time and place from Allen's distant memory, it just feels flat and hollow. I had the same reaction to the performances, which -- combined with the dialogue and staging -- are theatrical in all the wrong ways.
I read that Winslet did not care for her experience in playing the role of Ginny, and though she no doubt does the best she can with the material, the character is too one-note, expressing varying degrees of anxiety.
“When she was first approached to play the female lead in Wonder Wheel, Winslet said she balked at the challenge. Just reading the script made her nervous, uncertain that she could pull off a character that requires both honesty and wildness. The actress remembered telling her own family, 'I don’t know how to play this part. I’m just going to have to let it go, and it’s going to be one of those moments I’ll probably regret, and I’ll look at someone else playing the role, brilliantly. Much better than I would. Just, that’s it. Forget it.'”
As of 2020, Wonder Wheel is Woody Allen's last film to get a theatrical release in the US.