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Movie review: 'Wonder Wheel': Coney Island love triangle makes for monotonous melodrama

By: Michael O'Sullivan The Washington Post
December 15, 2017 Updated: December 15, 2017 at 4:30 am
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Kate Winslet as Ginny in "Wonder Wheel." MUST CREDIT: Jessica Miglio, Amazon Studios

Starring Kate Winslet, Jim Belushi, Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple; directed by Woody Allen; 101 minutes; PG-13 for thematic content including some sexuality, language and smoking. Grade: D+

Woody Allen's 1950s-set "Wonder Wheel" is not a great movie, but it does try to warn you. Narrated by Justin Timberlake, in the persona of Coney Island lifeguard and aspiring playwright Mickey Rubin, the film opens with a caution that the tale we are about to see will include - gasp - symbolism. If you don't like it, Mickey implies, that's tough.

What this preternaturally eloquent raconteur doesn't tell you is how heavy-handed that symbolism will be, or, indeed, to what eye-rollingly melodramatic ends it will be employed, in this well-acted yet pointless and, most disappointingly, dull tale of lust.

The metaphor of flames - in the form of a 10-year-old arsonist, whose pyromania often is accompanied by the song "Kiss of Fire" by Georgia Gibbs - is rampant, yet the film is oddly underbaked.

The story spun by Mickey concerns a love triangle - one that he not only observes, but also participates in - at the nexus where two women's affections come crashing together. On one side is Kate Winslet's Ginny, a former actress who now works as a waitress in a boardwalk clam house and is unhappily married to Jim Belushi's Humpty, a bullying operator of a merry-go-round and recovering alcoholic.

Juno Temple's Carolina, Humpty's daughter from his first marriage, is Ginny's rival for the affections of Mickey, who strings the women along until circumstances conspire to solve his indecision. This "solution" comes in the form of mobsters, played by professional Italian goons Steve Schirripa and Tony Sirico of "The Sopranos," who are looking for Carolina. It seems she's on the lam from her own unhappy marriage to a Mafioso on whom she has turned informant.

If all this seems needlessly complicated and hopelessly cliche, it is. A subplot concerning Ginny and Humpty's bratty son Richie (Jack Gore), who sets fires up and down the beach and in the office of his psychiatrist - only makes matters worse, given that it serves no narrative purpose save to underscore Allen's theme of dangerous, all-consuming desire.

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