With apologies to poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the setting of Wonder Wheel is a "Coney Island of the Mind" — in this case the mind of writer-director Woody Allen, who famously refuses to relinquish the 20th century. As imagined by Allen, with exquisite cinematography by Vittorio Storaro and production design by Santo Loquasto, Coney Island in the 1950s is crowded with working-class New Yorkers escaping the heat. The boardwalk and beach are lovingly bathed in sunset amber tones, and yet they're "growing relentlessly seedier as the ride rolls in and out."
That's the voiceover point of view of lifeguard Mickey (Justin Timberlake). Happy-go-lucky Mickey has his eye on a waitress at the clam house, Ginny (Kate Winslet), who likes him, too. This would be dandy except for the fact that restless, preoccupied Ginny is a few years older than Mickey, and she's married to the improbably named Humpty (Jim Belushi), proprietor of the merry-go-round.
Ginny's home life is a trifle haphazard. Humpty's daughter from a previous relationship, Carolina (Juno Temple), has come to live with the family in their Ferris-wheel-view apartment above the boardwalk, on the run from her gangster husband. Unaware of her stepmother's affair with the lifeguard, Carolina develops an interest in him herself. Humpty is a blustering buffoon — at times Belushi seems to be channeling Broderick Crawford. And then there's Richie (Jack Gore), Ginny's young son from an earlier marriage — he's a pyromaniac, constantly playing with matches. A couple of hoods have dropped by, too, looking for Carolina.
Ginny and Humpty drink a lot. Every time Ginny goes into a self-pitying speech about her past, the lighting changes. Belushi, Timberlake, and Temple are fully up to the task, but Winslet's Ginny is the character we care about most. Her role reminds us of Cate Blanchett's Jasmine from Blue Jasmine (the part itself a spinoff from Tennessee Williams), a highly strung, delusional, impulsive woman, unwilling or unable to deal with the consequences of her actions.
Ginny feels trapped, but what a gorgeous trap. Wonder Wheel overdoses on eye candy even more than Allen's Café Society from last year, and the needle drop hit parade bulges with tunes by such forgotten artists as Jo Stafford, Teresa Brewer, and the Mills Brothers. So what if all the characters seem likely to die violent deaths? While it lasts, life is a dream.
Written and directed by Woody Allen. With Kate Winslet and Jim Belushi. Now playing.