When Woody Allen started shooting Wonder Wheel back in 2016, perhaps it seemed like a good idea. Or maybe he just picked an old script up off the pile and didn't think much more about it. Either way, there's no escaping the uncomfortable feeling that accompanies the film. For decades, the prolific writer-director has continued to work while immersed in controversy stemming both from his marriage to his stepdaughter, as well as from allegations of abuse made by his adopted daughter. That his latest movie is about a writer falling for his former actress girlfriend's stepdaughter is particularly astounding, and feels well and truly on the nose – especially at a time when Hollywood's look-the-other-way attitude to inappropriate sexual behaviour is finally starting to change.
Even if Allen's own past didn't loom over the film's narrative, and even if the #metoo movement wasn't moving forward in leaps and bounds, Wonder Wheel wouldn't rank among his best work. Pumping out a movie a year has given the director more misses than hits in recent times – and his latest definitely falls into the first category. It doesn't help that Allen attempts to pre-emptively counter criticism of his approach by having his narrator highlight the movie's melodramatic nature via to-camera addresses. Calling something out yourself, via Justin Timberlake as your screen-surrogate, doesn't make it go away.
Timberlake plays lifeguard and aspiring playwright Mickey. It's the 1950s, and with summer in full swing on New York's Coney Island, Mickey has a crowded beach to patrol — and, before too long, a waitress to woo. Sweating it out serving clams while she dreams of a stage heyday long passed, Ginny (Kate Winslet) warms to her younger lover easily. After all, he's certainly an improvement on her lunk of a husband Humpty (Jim Belushi), and a distraction from her fire-starting pre-teen son Richie (Jack Gore). But things are soon complicated by the arrival of Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty's daughter from a previous marriage, who runs from her mobster husband straight into Mickey's affections.
It all plays out as predictably as it sounds, but credit where credit's due: even saddled with problematic material and trying dialogue to match, Winslet knocks her performance out of the (amusement) park. In her hands, Ginny's furrowed brow is lined with both well-worn creases and years of wearying disappointment, while the glint in her eye when someone finally starts seeing her as more than a wife, waitress and mother could light up a room. Like Blue Jasmine's Cate Blanchett, the British actress knows how to find depth in a character that could've been an over-the-top joke (and, given the real-life history tying into this film, it's easy to assume Allen intended for Ginny to amuse). Though a committed Belushi does his best alongside her, with Temple proving dutifully alluring and Timberlake routine, Winslet is the movie's undoubted wonder.
That said, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Cafe Society) comes a close second. As Wonder Wheel tries to turn fact into overheated fiction, its visuals positively glow — in sunny beachside encounters, in its use of shadows, and whenever the light of the titular attraction shines on the movie's frames. Subtly infusing the alternating red and blue hues of the ferris wheel's neon sign over the drama not only results in gorgeous images, but also mirrors the changing mood as scenes move from rosy to sorrowful. If only they belonged to a movie worthy of such eye-catching charms. Wonder Wheel might be the story of a man won over by something pretty, but viewers are unlikely to make the same mistake.