From its opening scene, you know Wonder Wheel is going to be one of those movies with tons of shots that could be framed as stills and hung on the walls of an art gallery. Coney Island in the 1950s, the beach speckled with colorful umbrellas and swimsuits, neon Ferris wheels, tourists with ice cream cones on the boardwalk, and lifeguard towers at sunset: They all come together in the latest movie from director Woody Allen, whose projects have long generated controversy.
Watch: Kate Winslet Reveals Her Most Special Memory
It is beautiful to watch—all Kodachrome colors bathed in a soft yellow glow of nostalgia and wistfulness—thanks to cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. But the most impressive thing about this melancholy film is Kate Winslet’s performance as Ginny, a weary waitress at a clam shack, nearing her 40th birthday and stuck in a loveless marriage.
She reminisces wistfully, but Ginny seems resigned to her current life as the wife of Humpty—a burly carnival worker (played by Jim Belushi), who is trying, not very successfully, to cut down on his booze intake. They live somewhat uneventfully in a dingy apartment (that used to house a freak show!) behind a Ferris wheel with Ginny’s young son, Richie, a budding pyromaniac.
But then Justin Timberlake, er, I mean, Mickey, comes along. Timberlake’s performance as the optimistic lifeguard-slash-aspiring playwright isn’t bad. But it’s impossible not to watch him and keep thinking “That’s Justin Timberlake,” which is even trickier since he’s the narrator of the film.
At any rate, Ginny’s dreary life is transformed when Mickey sees her wandering along the seashore one day and tells her she has to go in because a storm is coming. They end up having drinks and well, things to lead to things and the pair start a passionate summer romance. “I’m not 35. She tells him. I’m 38. I’m 39.” “That’s a very hot age for a woman,” he replies.
But it gets complicated when Humpty’s estranged daughter Carolina (played by Juno Temple) shows up. A vampy gangster’s moll (literally), not only does Carolina take up too much of Humpty attention for Ginny’s liking, she also takes a shine to Mickey, who in turn becomes smitten by her vulnerability and beauty.
Jealousy ensues and we watch as Ginny unravels, transforming from a woman whose passions have been rekindled to one whose hopes have been dashed. In her desperation, she commits an unforgivable act. You have to see the film to find out what that is.
If Winslet gets an Oscar nomination for this performance (which she very well might), it will either be because of a scene under the pier where she tells Mickey she has had so much love to give and nobody she has wanted to give it to, or because of the scene where, in one last desperate attempt to win back Mickey, she dresses in a slinky white gown and costume jewelry, puts a rose in her hair, paints her face with too much makeup, and fills her body with too much scotch.
But of course, instead of attracting Mickey she repulses him. It’s all reminiscent of a Tennessee Williams play or the film Sunset Boulevard—watching a woman’s struggle with aging, missed opportunities, lost love, and descent into madness.
At times the dialogue feels a bit trite or maybe too familiar? But watching Winslet fully inhabit Ginny from despair to hope to despair again, is well worth it. “I’m not a waitress in a clam house,” she tells Mickey in one scene. “There’s more to me than that. It’s a role I’m playing.” We believe her.
Wonder Wheel hits theaters Friday, Dec. 1.