Woody Allen films now come in three essential flavors, or maybe it just comes down to three levels of quality. Once in a blue jasmine moon, he comes up with an enthralling act of high-wire inspiration, like “Match Point” or “Blue Jasmine,” that proves that he can still be as major as any filmmaker out there. Then there are the quaintly crafted, phoned-in mediocrities, like “Café Society” or “To Rome with Love,” where the jokes feel old and the situations older, like the Woody Allen version of paint by numbers. But then there are the middle-drawer Allen films that still percolate with energy and flair, like “Bullets Over Broadway” or “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” They’re too baubly and calculated to be great, with each Woody trope locking into place, yet damned if they don’t hold you and even, in their way, add up to something (even if it’s ultimately something minor).
“Wonder Wheel” is one of those movies. Set in Coney Island in 1950, it’s a bit too tidy and programmed in a well-made-play-from-the-postwar-era kind of way. Yet it’s more than a therapy session with antiquated wisecracks. It’s got movement and flow, it’s got a vibrant sunset look of honky-tonk nostalgia, and it’s got a bittersweet mood of lyrical despair that the film stays true to right up until the final note. It’s also strikingly acted by a cast of players who don’t just walk through the Woody motions (though at least three of them can be caught doing the stutter); they grab their roles and charge them with life. “Wonder Wheel” isn’t a comedy — on the contrary, it often feels like the most earnest kitchen-sink drama that Clifford Odets never wrote. It may or may not turn out to be an awards picture, but it’s a good night out, and that’s not nothing.
In the 20 years since “Titanic,” Kate Winslet’s acting has acquired a distinct edge, a certain remorseless quality of harsh-tongued resolve that she wears quite proudly. She long ago made a decision to stop being anyone’s dream-factory sweetheart, and Allen, in “Wonder Wheel,” has written her a role that fits the new hardscrabble Winslet like a rough but perfectly shaped glove.
She plays Ginny, a once-fiery redhead who used to be married to a jazz drummer she adored, but that all seems like a mirage from the past. Ginny, who’s approaching her 40th birthday, now works as a waitress in a Coney Island clam bar and lives with her 10-year-old son, Richie (Jack Gore), and her second husband, Humpty (Jim Belushi) — not the boy’s father — in a cramped apartment directly across from the giant blue Ferris wheel with pink lettering that’s the amusement park’s signature attraction.
The image of the Wonder Wheel literally fills the living-room window, but that’s the least oppressive aspect of being there. The sound of arcade gunfire drives Ginny nuts. And so does Humpty, a gruff Stanley Kowalski-Ralph Kramden 1950s lunkhead in a wifebeater who operates the Coney Island merry-go-round, and whose idea of fun is to have Ginny tag along while he fishes with his buddies or goes to Dodgers games, all of which she refuses to do, because it literally bores the life out of her.
Snappish and morose, fueled by the occasional secret slurp from the whiskey bottle she keeps hidden under the sink, Ginny seems like a bit of a pill — but actually, she’s a romantic who’s fast running out of hope. Winslet plays her with a controlled rage that can seem lashingly arbitrary, as if she were suffering from borderline personality disorder, but then you realize that Ginny is reacting, with a piteously sane logic, to her closed-in circumstances. Her son seems outwardly normal, except that he’s a pyromaniac who keeps setting bonfires. You can imagine that sort of thing milked for cheap laughs in another Woody Allen movie, but the most interesting thing about it here is that the film plays it straight. Those fires are the passion that the kid (in his channeling way) keeps trying to ignite before his mother feels the dying of the light.
Then she meets Mickey Rubin, a lifeguard played, with high hair and a gliding spirit of postwar bohemian pretension, by Justin Timberlake. Mickey, a Navy veteran of World War II, is studying to be a playwright in the master’s program at NYU. He’s got a flat in Greenwich Village, and he experiences life as a drama he’s living through; we know that because he’s the film’s talking-into-the-camera narrator, and he keeps telling us, in essence, that all the world’s a stage. To Mickey, having a summer fling with Ginny doesn’t have to mean anything. It’s just another act in the drama he’s living. But Ginny, of course, thinks it means everything. She’s a woman whose condition is misery, and this will be her great escape, her one and only last hope.
A neat dramatic trick that powers “Wonder Wheel” is that every character in it, even when they act badly, has a good heart. Belushi, wriggling free of his aging-bro mannerisms, gives a performance as the stunted, desperate Humpty that rises to moments of bellicose ferocity, yet he’s never a gratuitous mad dog. Humpty has his own breaking heart, which we first see when his estranged daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), shows up. The two haven’t spoken in five years, but Carolina, played by Temple as a fallen ingénue who’s still a flower of sweetness, is fleeing from the gangster who Humpty warned her not to marry; she didn’t heed the advice, and then she spilled the beans about her husband to the FBI. Humpty now looks at his daughter with a fusion of resentment and devotion that feels touchingly true. He moves her into the house, and sends her to night school. All of which goes more or less well until Carolina, too, meets Mickey the lifeguard.
The more films that Woody Allen makes, the more it can seem as though he assembles them by re-arranging the same dozen spare parts, and in “Wonder Wheel” you can tick them off as you’re watching them. The love triangle that plays out between Ginny, Mickey, and Carolina carries an unmistakable echo of the central romantic situation in “Manhattan.” Ginny, the drama-queen heroine of a certain age who feels life closing in on her, is Woody going to the well of “Blue Jasmine” again — he still draws water from it, only this time the well is less deep. The gangster subplot, with Steven Schirripa and Tony Sirico showing up as underworld goons, provides a soupçon of “Bullets Over Broadway.” And when Ginny arrives at her own moment of destiny, which involves a choice to either help someone in dire need or to do quite the opposite, she hovers on the phone like Martin Landau in “Crimes and Misdemeanors”: an “ordinary” person suddenly playing God by exercising control over matters of life and death.
The movie also overflows with general quotes from what might be called The Woody Philosophy. Do I mean all the chatter about fate, our tragic flaws, and the universe’s ultimate way of determining everything? Yes, but I also refer to that aspect of The Woody Philosophy that says that a man like Mickey, in the midst of his involvement with a complicated middle-aged woman, will inexorably be drawn to the tender uncomplicated embrace of a sexy adoring younger babe. At one point Mickey actually says, “The heart has its own hieroglyphics.” Yes, and so does the penis.
There are moments in “Wonder Wheel” — not many, but a few — that color in the characters’ experiences in a way that can leave you breathless. Under the boardwalk, against the blackened wood, with the twilight bathing her in an orange glow that’s positively Sirkian, Winslet delivers a monologue about how Ginny destroyed her marriage, and her harshness falls away to reveal the excruciating tenderness of paradise lost. And in the big scene at the end, it’s sad but thrilling to behold what an actress-to-the-core Ginny really is. Yet if “Wonder Wheel” is structured as a tragedy, a tale of people brought low by their own unconscious hand, you don’t necessarily feel the forces of fate at work. What you feel is the force of a filmmaker who’s been at this game too long to leave much to chance.