Set in 1950, which doesn’t stop one character from catching the 1933 movie “Flying Down to Rio” at the local bijou, Woody Allen’s “Wonder Wheel” is narrated by a budding dramatist working as a Coney Island lifeguard. Justin Timberlake plays our host, who sleeps with a needy, disillusioned clam house waitress, played by Kate Winslet. He’s also sneaking around with her stepdaughter (Juno Temple), costumed by Suzy Benzinger like a hard-luck Depression-era chorine. She’s on the lam from the mob and five years estranged from her father, the waitress’ carousel operator husband (Jim Belushi).
We’re long past worrying about spoiler alerts with a Woody Allen movie. The women in “Wonder Wheel” are ruined, and the writer comes out fine, and unlike the similar dynamic in Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” the primary ripoff point for Allen this time, the male instigator in the relational chaos isn’t examined critically or even dramatically. He’s just a guy talking to the camera, in between shots of beautiful women, beautifully lighted, mired in a filmmaker’s creative exhaustion.
In code, “Wonder Wheel” sneaks around the edges of the writer-director’s off-screen life, namely the allegations by Dylan Farrow, Allen’s adopted daughter, of sexual molestation, and Allen’s controversial marriage to Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of Allen’s then-partner Mia Farrow.
As with so much in the culture this year, this cascading year of reckoning for so many transgressive men, watching Allen’s latest is not easy for two reasons: the movie itself, and the score-settling that seems to be going on in the margins. At one point, the waitress, a onetime actress, accuses her husband of “unnatural” affection toward his daughter. There’s no evidence, of course, so the accusation is just another sign of her instability and vindictiveness. Take that, Mia!
Innuendo aside, Allen has criminally little to say about men and women beyond how females are always “unraveling,” “acting crazy” or “losing it” (they said “losing it” in 1950?). The best a female cliche can hope for in “Wonder Wheel” is for a smarter, more confident male cliche to swoop down and “not make me feel so dumb,” as the Temple character squeaks.
Half the Winslet scenes, particularly the later ones, play like outtakes from “Blue Jasmine,” Allen’s shameless Tennessee Williams “Streetcar Named Desire” rewrite. Winslet’s giving as valiant a performance as the one Cate Blanchett won an Oscar for in “Blue Jasmine,” but she’s acting in a vacuum.
Line to line, “Wonder Wheel” clunks and groans. “The dramatist in me sensed she was in some kind of trouble,” the lifeguard voice-overs at one point. “Her body language read ‘vulnerable and desperate.’” Elsewhere, waitress Ginny recalls her first husband. “Someone I loved. (Pause.) A drummer. (Pause.) Whose rhythm pulsated with life.” The gangster’s moll coos over the lifeguard: “I think he likes me, and is sincere.” “And is sincere”? That’s not a line that reads all right but sounds awkward in an actor’s mouth; it doesn’t even read well.
Shooting digitally, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro color-codes the characters’ crises in symbolically loaded fashion, with the screen awash in heavily saturated midnight blues and sunset orange. Everything’s lit by neon; the key location, the apartment overlooking the Ferris wheel of the title, begs for it. But the color schemes are more like color conspiracies.
Allen’s direction is actually improving at this stage of his career; whoever designed the shots here, he or Storaro or both, occasionally there’s a longish, fluid take that makes “Wonder Wheel” feel like a movie, moving, as opposed to a bad play standing still.