CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS
I'm still one of those who finds Woody Allen movies interesting: they're a civilised, intelligent evening's entertainment with usually impressive casts given some Proper Acting to get their teeth into, a level of wit and character, and Serious Things To Say About Life And Death And The Human Condition. Some are better than others, obviously, and some have been borderline unwatchable (principally his London-set films, of which You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger and Cassandra's Dream are the worst things he's ever done), but there's usually something about them worth seeing. I think it's also fair to say he's been off the boil recently, with some pretty aimless fare like Cafe Society and Irrational Man: not even fun while they're on, and the likes of Love And Death and Annie Hall are so far away now. Just as David Cronenberg stopped doing gloopy horror films and moved into Serious Drama, so Allen has wandered away from the comedy (bits of To Rome With Love apart, the last overtly funny one was probably Whatever Works which no-one but me seemed to like).
Wonder Wheel follows this trend: there are no laughs to be had. Most of it is a one-set play located in Humpty and Ginny's (a fabulously slobby Jim Belushi doing his best Ralph Kramden, a wildly overwrought Kate Winslet) apartment over the Coney Island funfair in the 1950s around which they both work. Both have children from previous marriages: her young son Richie, obsessed with setting fire to things, and his daughter Carolina (Juno Temple), fleeing murderous gangsters after leaving her mob husband. Both women form attachments to the film's narrator, lifeguard and wannabe Serious Dramatist Mickey (Justin Timberlake)....
Given that Mickey wants to be a playwright, the new Eugene O'Neill, and Ginny used to be an actress years ago, it's perhaps no surprise that Wonder Wheel feels so theatrical. The exteriors could all be easily excised or adjusted and most of what's left could play verbatim at the National: a loud and melodramatic shouting match with lots of hysterical declaiming going on but no jokes and no levity. (At least a staged performance might well manage without countless repeats of The Mills Brothers performing something called Coney Island Washboard, possibly the most annoying musical choice for any of Allen's films.)
It's nice that Allen has (at least temporarily) reversed his usual schtick of March-to-December inappropriate relationships so that the older Winslet can get off with the far younger Timberlake - he's much closer to the age Woody Allen was when Wonder Wheel is set - as the theme of a nubile young hottie and a decrepit old fart was fast becoming tiresome. And the film looks beautiful in places, with Vittorio Storaro's cinematography using the rich colours from the neon funfair lights outside. But for all that, and the full-on (over)acting, it's a joyless film with a surprisingly bleak ending. 101 minutes of meh, it's not a film to get excited about, and not a return to form by any means. Maybe next time.