The new Woody Allen movie Wonder Wheel opens in 1950 Coney Island, a place the narrator, who claims to be a writer, describes as a "jewel" that's "gone to seed."
Is he a bad writer?
Is that why his very first metaphor is mixed?
It's difficult to tell in Wonder Wheel, a very sloppy piece of work, apart from the cinematography, which is pretty, and the Mills Brothers songs, which are fantastic.
Otherwise, the move shows evidence of Allen's late-career bad habits: The script plays like an unedited rough draft, or the work of someone who no longer has anyone to tell him he needs to try harder.
There is hair-raisingly bad dialogue throughout this story of has-been actress Ginny (Kate Winslet), a waitress in a stifling marriage to a bellowing, barely on-the-wagon alcoholic known as Humpty (Jim Belushi). The put-upon Ginny, already raising an arsonist son, is soon dealing with a visit by a va-va-voom stepdaughter (Juno Temple), who is on the lam from her violent gangster husband.
Belushi's character, by the way, is shown to have an embarrassing crush on his own daughter. More self-referential Allen innuendo? More fodder for armchair psychologists? Anybody who watches Wonder Wheel in armchair will nod off before Act Two.
In any event, Ginny finds relief in the arms of a lifeguard Mickey (Justin Timberlake, badly miscast). They have a summer fling — meeting in his Greenwich Village apartment, sharing dreams, making rain-soaked love under the boardwalk.
In these moments Ginny looks as happy as any woman in a recent Allen picture is permitted to be, but a mood of pessimism hangs over Wonder Wheel, and we sense that Mickey the lifeguard will not be saving Ginny's life.
And no performance can save Wonder Wheel, which references the stage work of Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams, but is beset with heavy-handed dialogue that treats every actor like an inconvenience.
Nothing in the movie is dramatized. Everything is stipulated.
The moment Mickey first sees Ginny on the beach, for example. She's walking on the sand, shoes in hand, surrounded by people but desperately alone. Before the image can work its magic, we're bludgeoned with more Allen-penned narration: "The dramatist in me sensed she must be in some kind of trouble."
Winslet is in trouble, all right.
She's in Wonder Wheel.