PLOT In Coney Island during the 1950s, an aspiring writer begins an affair with a waitress.
CAST Kate Winslet, Justin Timberlake, Jim Belushi, Juno Temple
RATED PG-13 (language and sexuality)
PLAYING AT Angelika Film Center, City Cinemas 123 and Lincoln Plaza Cinema in Manhattan. Opens locally Dec. 15.
BOTTOM LINE Another scattershot effort from Woody Allen, now on his 48th film as a director.
Woody Allen’s latest film, “Wonder Wheel,” shares its title with Coney Island’s famous Ferris wheel, which itself serves as a decent metaphor for the writer-director’s last dozen or so movies. Sometimes they reach the top, sometimes they get stuck in the middle and every so often they dangle somewhere near the bottom.
“Wonder Wheel” isn’t one of Allen’s worst, but it’s definitely a third-tier effort. Set in Coney Island during the 1950s, it features a loose-knit script, a mixed bag of a cast and no detectable theme. The narrator is Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a lifeguard with literary aspirations, who falls for Ginny (Kate Winslet), an emotionally needy waitress. She’s unhappily married to a carousel operator, Humpty (Jim Belushi). And just to complicate things, Humpty’s estranged daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), shows up looking for a hiding place from the mob.
It hardly needs saying that this is all familiar Allen territory. What’s slightly different is that “Wonder Wheel” finds Allen indulging his inner theater director more than usual, allowing his actors to play out long scenes with little assistive editing. As a result, even the strongest performances are marked by rough spots. Timberlake’s Mickey cuts a convincing silhouette of a confident American male, but Temple’s Carolina never quite comes into focus (she’s really just a plot device anyway). Winslet, of course, never hits a false note — she makes Allen sound like Ibsen — though her fragile Ginny sometimes feels like an echo of Cate Blanchett’s unstable Jasmine in Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” (his last truly top-notch film).
There’s an unexpected revelation here: Belushi. Humpty is definitely a stock character, the working-class alcoholic in the stained sleeveless T-shirt, but he’s also a challenging mix of abusive and tender, coarse and kind. Belushi digs into the role with old-school actorly gusto and turns this sympathetic oaf into the heart of the movie.
The movie’s other strong point is the cinematography by the legendary Vittorio Storaro (“Apocalypse Now”). If anything, Storaro’s deep black shadows and wistful neon lighting are a bit too profound for Allen’s thin material. Still, at least this disappointing ride comes with some beautiful views.