Even a doubter heads into a new Woody Allen movie hoping it’s going to be one of the Good Ones. But even a fan has to acknowledge that at this late stage the Good Ones have become far and few between and that rote mediocrities like “To Rome With Love,” “Magic in the Moonlight,” “Irrational Man,” and “Café Society” have become the norm.
“Wonder Wheel,” Allen’s new film, is one of the Very Bad Ones. Set in a post-WWII Coney Island that glows with the hues of popsicles at sunset, it’s a strained adultery melodrama that appears to have been written poorly on purpose, as a sour parody of 1950s theatrical clichés.
What sinks the movie, though, and turns it into a genuine tour de force of tastelessness is a plot that reads as a coded defense of cheating on one’s lover with her daughter, to the point where the man in the triangle turns to the audience and says, “The heart has its own hieroglyphics.” That line’s close enough to the director’s own legendary 1991 shrug of confession to freeze a viewer in disbelief. There’s writing what you know, and then there’s writing what you need to keep telling yourself.
Here’s my theory of how this movie came to be: Allen stayed up late one night watching Turner Classics and caught an airing of “Clash by Night,” Fritz Lang’s stagy 1952 semi-noir, based on a Clifford Odets play, in which Barbara Stanwyck plays a bitter waterfront tootsie who cheats on her lumpen husband (Paul Douglas) with local stud Robert Ryan. “Wonder Wheel” rearranges that story line a bit, but not by much: Kate Winslet is cast as Ginny, a cynical clam shack waitress who cheats on her lumpen husband, Humpty (Jim Belushi), with local lifeguard Justin Timberlake.
Timberlake’s character, Mickey, is a naive wannabe playwright who narrates the movie in breathlessly banal prose. (A sample: “And so the Angel of Death passed over them and headed out west; but His shadow was scary.”) If it were only Mickey’s dialogue that felt consciously terrible, the joke might work. But everyone in “Wonder Wheel” goes on and on in stiff, wordy monologues that play like knock-offs of Odets, William Inge, Tennessee Williams, and other heavy hitters from the era of “serious” Broadway and “Playhouse 90.”
With such deadly lines as “Oh, God, spare me the bad drama!” and “As in Greek drama, ananke, or fate, rules so much of our destinies,” Allen seems to be aiming for some kind of meta-fiction, but to what end is never clear. The self-referencing goes nowhere, and the peppy period radio hits — inserted to break up the speechifying — play with leaden irony.
What is clear is the emotional instability of a middle-aged woman betrayed. The one major change to the Lang story line is the addition of Humpty’s grown daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), who arrives at the start of the film, fleeing from her unseen mobster husband. Carolina finds herself attracted to Mickey and he to her; apparently, the heart wants what the heart wants, especially when it favors low-cut frocks and comes bathed in golden-hour cinematography.
The burgeoning romance between her lover and stepdaughter threatens to send Ginny off the deep end, and as the character unravels into mercurial nastiness, it’s impossible not to wonder what scores Allen might be trying to settle here. Ginny’s even a failed actress who dreams of a return to the stage; her delusional vanity makes her a thin blue-collar variation on Cate Blanchett’s title character in the superior “Blue Jasmine.” Mostly, though, Ginny’s just a shrew, and the movie feels like her punishment.
Winslet goes down fighting, a good actress backed into a poisonous caricature. Timberlake gives the most vapid, awkward performance of his career. Belushi is rather good, and Temple is lovely and touching. None of them seems to be sure what, exactly, they’re supposed to be doing. None of them seems to have been directed. Even the casting in “Wonder Wheel” feels muffled and secondhand: When Allen brings in two of the gangsters’ goons, searching for Carolina, they’re played by Tony Sirico and Stephen R. Schirripa, a.k.a. Paulie Walnuts and Bobby Bacala of “The Sopranos.”
What you’ll probably come out talking about are the sets by Santo Loquasto — Ginny and Humpty live in an airy shack above the Coney Island midway that’s like a fishbowl of resentment — and especially Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography. At its best, which is often, Storaro’s camerawork bathes the film in a wash of reds, blues, and rich, nostalgic ambers. At its worst, it’s as though the film had been shot through one of the better Instagram filters. Mayfair, maybe.
Otherwise, “Wonder Wheel” will strike fans as an embarrassment and doubters as further evidence of decline — proof of Allen’s lack of interest or engagement in a world beyond his shrinking artistic comfort zone. There’s one shot in the movie — precisely one — that haunts a viewer the way art and good filmmaking can, and it involves Ginny’s young son (Jack Gore), who’s a budding arsonist. The image comes toward the end, and suddenly you get a sense that “Wonder Wheel” is on the verge of saying something, maybe even something profound, about human vanity and the urge to self-destruct. But it comes too late in the film, and too late in the day, to stick.
Written and directed by Woody Allen. Starring Kate Winslet, Justin Timberlake, Jim Belushi, Juno Temple. At Kendall Square. 101 minutes. PG-13 (thematic content including some sexuality, language, and smoking).