Winslet the only high point

Kate Winslet plays a waitress in an unhappy marriage with pathos in Wonder Wheel.
Kate Winslet plays a waitress in an unhappy marriage with pathos in Wonder Wheel.

REVIEW / DRAMA

WONDER WHEEL (NC16)

101 minutes/Opens today/1.5 stars

The story: In 1950s America, Ginny (Kate Winslet) is a clam house waitress, unhappily married to Humpty (Jim Belushi), who operates the carousel ride at the Coney Island amusement park. Their fractious marriage is strained further when Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty's daughter from an earlier marriage, shows up, running from the mob. Close to the carousel, graduate student Micky (Justin Timberlake) works as a lifeguard.

The best that can be said about this dull, overlong project is that it is at least pretty to look at.

Writer-director Woody Allen has lately been on a run of period pieces and each one has been washed in eye-catching shades of brown and orange. But that attempt at making it feel as if the scenes were pieced from cherished memories of a bygone New York is as far as he feels like taking it.

All the outdoor scenes look naturalistic, but when the action moves into the family home, where the film spends most of its time, things look rather more stage-like.

It appears that the celebrated film-maker seems to be trying to reproduce a great American stage drama in the style of playwrights Eugene O'Neill or Tennessee Williams - a suspicion confirmed with an obvious name-drop in the middle of the movie.

Thus, as in The Iceman Cometh or A Streetcar Named Desire, what is assembled here is a crew of working-class stiffs, men and women whose circumstances are much smaller than their dreams.

Over a hot summer in the famous amusement park, they drink, have raging arguments, muse about destiny, make love, see their hopes shatter and pick up the pieces.

Much of the goings-on is seen through the eyes of Ginny (Winslet), a woman coming to middle age, but clinging to a glamorous past life.

Winslet's portrayal of Ginny as a woman seeking love outside her marriage is a high point of the film and perhaps its only one.

The actress finds pathos in unexpected places, turning what might have been a stock character - the fading beauty recapturing her youth in the arms of a younger man - into something more complex and watchable.

Her exquisite performance only brings into sharper relief the stylistic triteness of the whole enterprise, a hashed-together job that feels like one of Allen's lesser, throwaway comedies - but with the jokes edited out.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2018, with the headline 'Winslet the only high point'. Print Edition | Subscribe