Movie review: Woody Allen’s ‘Wonder Wheel’ spins relentlessly but takes us nowhere

The great playwright Eugene O’Neill looms as large over Woody Allen’s latest film as the giant Ferris wheel dominating the movie’s 1950s Coney Island setting.

It’s not exactly clear whether “Wonder Wheel” is an ambitious homage to O’Neill or a blatant borrowing of his work. Either way, it could be tough going for Allen’s fans, since it’s pitch black and has too much stilted dialogue and to little of Allen’s signature quirkiness. When one character wails near the end, “Oh God, spare me the bad drama,” many viewers may agree.

Allen has long held O’Neill in high regard, and the filmmaker evidently has recycled so much from the master that what begins here as a period drama set at the Brooklyn seaside just after World War II morphs into something resembling O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” complete with alcoholic numbness, the members of a family at each other’s throats and the lady of the house half out of her mind.

As written and directed by Allen, the drama explores four intersecting lives — those of a struggling blue-collar couple (played by Jim Belushi and Kate Winslet), Belushi’s estranged daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) and summer lifeguard Mickey (Justin Timberlake), who wants to be a playwright. There’s also Carolina’s young brother, who starts fires.

The film feels like an exercise in play-writing retooled for the big screen. Allen uses Timberlake’s Mickey as his narrator. “Let me fill you in on that,” says the young hunk frequently, turning to the camera to address the plot, a device we soon tire of.

Allen makes Mickey’s version of events increasingly unreliable. “My tragic flaw is I’m too romantic a character,” he says in a delivery as wooden as the boardwalk, but that’s not Timberlake’s fault. Allen apparently has asked him to read his lines in a highly mannered style.

Winslet, playing a former actress named Ginny who is now a tough-as-nails waitress at a clam shack, falls for Mickey but tells him enigmatically, “I’m acting.” There’s a wonderful moment when we realize Mickey has begun lying to us and has become infatuated with Carolina. Belushi is perfectl as the blustery, bullying Humpty, but his adoration of his pretty daughter seems weird.

As the love triangle heats up, the movie turns darker and more tragic. One bright spot is a mini-“Sopranos” reunion, when Tony Sirico and Steve Schirripa show up playing mobsters. Another is the jazzy 1950s pop on the soundtrack.

Production designer

Source:: East Bay – Entertainment

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