Ambitious for late-late period Woody Allen, Wonder Wheel is set in Coney Island in the '50s, and nostalgia perks the man up. The boardwalk, the beach, a pizzeria: The period is lovingly and persuasively evoked, and the redoubtable Kate Winslet has her moments in the lead role, but those moments I fear are outnumbered by her onscreen minutes.
Winslet's character, oyster bar waitress Ginny, is a minor working-class variation on Cate Blanchett's in Blue Jasmine, herself a minor upper-crust riff on Blanche Dubois. Like Blanchett's Jasmine, Ginny spends the film unraveling, and telling us about it, breathlessly, in scenes that too often fail to build or peak. Allen has written strong roles for women in the past, but in this case the best I can say is that he's written Winslet lots of words, repetitive reams of them, all expressive of Ginny's anxiety. The long-take camerawork is arresting, but Winslet's performance would benefit from the kind of editing such takes don't allow.
Jim Belushi plays Humpty, Ginny's grousing, abusive husband, hardly the lover of her life. Belushi broods and thunders capably, though he's stuck playing Arthur Miller's Fred Flintstone. Ginny, meanwhile, falls into a summer fling with a buff lifeguard/wannabe playwright (Justin Timberlake). With him, Ginny cheers up, even flowers, and gets the chance to do what women in love do in all Woody Allen movies: get caught in the rain with a man who enjoys foisting books upon her. Here these scenes of ritualized courtship occur twice. For love to bloom in the Allenverse, the woman must be doused, and then handed a syllabus. The tragedy that ensues seems a hysterical rewrite of dramas in Allen's own life.