There's a theatrical atmosphere to "Wonder Wheel," a formally polished work of moody 1950s nostalgia from the endlessly prolific Woody Allen. In its claustrophobic set design, shimmering kaleidoscopic lighting, lengthy uninterrupted takes and dramatic dialogue, it knits the principal strands of a stage piece into film form.
This is another earnest, stylish, deeply observant late work from Allen, with only subliminal appearances from the jokey humor that made him a marquee star. There is foolishness, but it concerns characters' inner lives, not slapstick.
A cautionary tale of romantic delusion, the story is set beside Coney Island's seedy, colorful boardwalk shortly after World War II, an era and social environment Allen knows intimately. It's a period kitchen-sink drama in the style of Arthur Miller, with crushed illusions, infidelity, betrayal, guilt and personal conscience at the forefront, alongside Allen's recurring focus, a woman with marital problems.
Our narrative guide is Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a handsome lifeguard who is studying playwriting at NYU. He overemphasizes the obvious and misses the disparity between fantasy and reality. "I have a poetic temperament," he announces.
Putting this artless guardian into a mixed bag of players menaced by their self-delusions is tragic irony. It also allows us to view the coming events as a production based on his perspective. What is about to unfold is not wholly based on truth, he cautions. "As a poet, I use symbols, and as a budding dramatist, I relish melodrama and larger-than-life characters."
The film couldn't provide more vivid symbols than the shabby boardwalk's Wonder Wheel Ferris wheel and the carousel ride operated by Humpty (Jim Belushi). He and his wife, Ginny (Kate Winslet), live directly across from those attractions in an apartment provided by the amusement park management. Its big windows offer a direct view of the rides where people ride around and around to forget daily life. For years Humpty found his own solace in drink. Alcoholism is behind the big lug now, though bad news makes him demand that Ginny show him where she keeps her own bottle hidden.
She is a piece of work on her own. Once a small-time actress, the central drama of her present life, she says, is that she is "playing the part of a waitress in a clam house." It's a tough life for the pair, made more difficult by her young son from her first marriage, Richie (Jack Gore), an incorrigible thief and firebug.
When Ginny and the younger Mickey cross paths, she feels she may have found an escape from her dreary life. Each adores theater as a way to let imagination run free. And as she pushes deeper into her relationship with Mickey, she believes she may realize her fantasies, rising from a life of sordid poverty to new romance and a return to the stage.
Then, as Mickey might say, the plot thickens with the arrival of Humpty's estranged daughter from his first marriage, Carolina (Juno Temple). She is hiding from her mobster husband. Soon she's working beside Ginny at Ruby's Clam House and going for walks on the beach.
There she attracts the attention of Mickey, who reads dense books like "Hamlet and Oedipus." That study used Freud's psychoanalytic approach to examine the characters' rash, inexplicable behavior. It doesn't seem to have taught Mickey much about hubris and the tendency of people to do stupid things, particularly when they sense a threat from a romantic rival.
I would put "Wonder Wheel" in the category of "I appreciated it, but it's not for everyone." The roles are two-dimensional. There are performances that feel too actorish (Especially Belushi's hand-shaking, finger-waving gestures).
And the story is too open to biographical analysis. Allen chronicles the dire consequences of a dramatist's romantic shift from a hot-tempered actress to her stepdaughter, which will lead many viewers to see it as a commentary about his affair with Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his longtime partner, Mia Farrow.
It's impossible to prove or disprove whatever parallels might be in play. Nor do I care. To me, the film operates on its own. As Mickey, Timberlake makes a solid portrait of a guy who doesn't know what he doesn't know. Winslet gives viewers a challenge as she plays a grating character in a grating manner. It may feel oppressive, but wait until the 11th-hour scene when she ignites Ginny's remaining ember of stage magic, becoming surprisingly well-spoken and self-possessed in front of an audience of one.
It was a delight to see Tony Sirico and Steve Schirripa from "The Sopranos" turn up as a pair of Mafia goons chasing Carolina, and to see Temple bring that role to credible life. The luminous camera work by superstar cinematographer Vittorio Storaro could be framed and hung as art. While "Wonder Wheel" isn't in the top rank of the 50-plus features that Allen has directed since 1966, it's far more ambitious and well crafted than most other American films this year.