If nothing else, Woody Allen has a directing career that has lasted nearly five decades. In the 20th century, he made a string of acclaimed works, including the Oscar-winning Best Picture, Annie Hall. In the 21st century, Allen continues to make about one picture per year, but the acclaim has not been as prevalent. One reason for the diminished acclaim is films like Wonder Wheel. The story is set in the 1950s and is narrated by Mickey Rubin (Justin Timberlake), a former soldier and college student who spends one summer working as a lifeguard on Coney Island. During that summer, he becomes involved with two women. The first is Ginny Rannell (Kate Winslet), a waitress who's unhappily married to Humpty Rannell (Jim Belushi), a ride mechanic. Her home life is a mess because Ginny and Humpty constantly argue, and her son, Richie (Jack Gore) likes to set fires.
Things change for the worse when Humpty's estranged daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), comes to the Rinnell home. She has left her mobster husband, who has put a hit order on her. Humpty lets her stay with them, but that move is met with resentment by Ginny. Even though she gets Carolina a waitressing job, Ginny complains about her unwillingness to help around their place. Humpty defends Carolina, though, and even gives her money for college courses. He even misdirects when mobsters Angelo (Tony Sirico) and Nick (Steve Schirripa) confront him at work looking for Carolina. When Carolina and Mickey meet on the beach, he falls for her. Tension grows when Ginny buys Mickey an expensive gift, and learns that Mickey has a greater interest in Carolina than her.
Anyone who thought that Allen couldn't make a film worse than Irrational Man will find themselves corrected if they see Wonder Wheel. Other Allen dramas, such as September and Another Woman, weren't very compelling, but Wonder Wheel has no compelling characters. The twist at this film's climax was similar to the one at the climax of the much better Blue Jasmine - and was much more gripping in that film. The only real star of Wonder Wheel was the cinematography of Vittorio Storaro, which gives the movie a look like one would see in Technicolor works from the 1950s. This film is otherwise as recycled as many of Allen's films since Sweet And Lowdown told an amusing tale of an enigmatic jazz guitarist.
Allen attracts big names to his projects, but this film didn't do them any favors. As Ginny, Winslet's character asserts she can be her own worst enemy. That certainly turns out to be true as she not only keeps life miserable for herself, she makes life miserable for everyone else. Ginny isn't sympathetic; she's just grating. One wonders what she ever saw in Humpty, and why she ever thought the much younger Mickey could be any sort of improvement. Timberlake is all wrong as Mickey, who is an unconvincing native New Yorker. He'd be home at the beaches on the other ends of the country. Mickey also seems to use this summer experience as a fling and as fodder for his hopes of becoming a writer. Belushi just growls through his lines as Humpty, a man who can't make anybody happy, even when he tries to do something nice, such as throwing Ginny a birthday party and giving her a nice gift. Temple might elicit some sympathy for her situation, but the reason for her predicament is never made clear.
I suppose the title Wonder Wheel is symbolic for the endless cycles these characters endure every day. Most who watch this film will simply think the film itself seems endless. It's as underdeveloped as it is uninteresting. Some will think this one belongs in the fire that turns out to be the last shot of the film. I'll be a little more kind and say that seeing this film once, like many other recent Allen efforts, is enough.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Wonder Wheel one star. A film of wonder in the worst way.