Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 13 / 29 March 2018

A Coney Island of the mind


Juno Temple in director Woody Allen's "Wonder Wheel." Photo: Amazon Studios
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Woody Allen's nebbishy character Alvy Singer claimed in the first frames of his Oscar-winning 1977 comedy "Annie Hall" to have been "brought up underneath the roller coaster in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn." Allen has come full circle and returned to Coney Island in his latest release, "Wonder Wheel," a melancholy romantic comedy-thriller that boasts a likely Oscar-nominated performance from its ballsy female lead, Kate Winslet.

At its best, "Wonder Wheel," is sweet East Coast beach nostalgia, satisfying memories of seashores where you could actually make it into the water without freezing your butt off or risking being swept to your death from treacherous riptides. At times during a press screening, this South Shore, Long Island beach-raised kid nearly succumbed to memories of skeeball and the taste of one of Nathan's Famous hotdogs or a knish.

"Wonder Wheel" kicks off with a burst of energy along the Coney Island beach boardwalk as the story's narrator, lifeguard/wannabe writer Mickey (Justin Timberlake), sets the scene and introduces the cast of characters. And characters they are. Allen is at his best when he creates an intimate world of zany types for whom there is no escape beyond the next one-liner or sardonic retort. The film's embattled quartet consists of Humpty (Jim Belushi), a loutish beer-drinking sap who runs the Coney Island carousel, his estranged adult daughter Carolina (Juno Temple), sexy lifeguard Mickey, and most importantly, Humpty's long-suffering wife Ginny, a frustrated former actress (Winslet). This foursome spends the bulk of the film's 101 minutes flirting, kvetching and taking out their frustrations on each other.

But from opening frame to final credits, this is Winslet's movie, reminding both fans and late arrivals that the English-born actress has wowed us with tough-minded and tough-hearted characters in films from "Heavenly Creatures" for New Zealand's Peter Jackson to the heartbreaking love story of a former concentration camp guard who seduces a young German boy ("The Reader"), or as the lass who challenges her American lover to wipe his memory clean of their affair ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"), or as the young Englishwoman who tragically loses her working-class lover to sea-going tragedy ("Titanic"). The high point of "Wonder Wheel" comes when Winslet's Ginny finds herself staring into her bedroom mirror as she brushes her hair and practices her confession to Mickey the lifeguard. The scene has a world-class performer inhabiting the unfulfilled longings of a talentless middle-aged dreamer.

"I want to be honest with you, Mickey, I'm married. I'm a married woman. I want to be honest with you, Mickey, I'm a married woman, I married, Mickey, I feel strange mentioning it, not that you asked. I got myself into a bad situation, I got myself, I got myself into a bad situation."

As he approaches 81, Woody Allen has lost a bit of his old 1970s-era zip, when he was arguably America's most inventive serio-comic cinema artist. Also, "Wonder Wheel" would be ever so much tastier if Allen had access to a more effectively ferocious Humpty, say the likes of the late James Gandolfini, or if loverboy lifeguard Mickey were given the sexy intonations of Allen regular Jesse Eisenberg.

Still, a big boost for the film's appeal comes from the summertime color scheme of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, marking his second behind-the-camera contribution to an Allen film. This warm-weather-hatched treat, filmed in the summer of 2016 for what seems today like a shoestring $25 million budget, is well worth your time. The Winslet-Timberlake chemistry may have been enhanced by the stars sharing an on-location trailer. In an interview with CBS "Late Show" host Stephen Colbert, Winslet admitted that their early-morning quarters were close enough for her to hear Timberlake's morning bathroom rituals. Winslet also confessed to being nervous enough about her American Brooklyn accent that she worked on it for three weeks to receive an Allen thumbs-up of "Nice job!" "Wonder Wheel" opens Friday.


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