Kate Winslet is on fire in Woody Allen's Wonder Wheel, playing Ginny, an unhappily married waitress living near the boardwalk on Brooklyn's Coney Island circa 1950. This broken dreamer is pushing 40 and reaching the limits of her patience with Humpty (a solidly affecting Jim Belushi), the carousel-operator she married to provide a semblance of security for her pre-teen, budding-pyromaniac son Richie (Jack Gore), a budding pyromaniac. The Wonder Wheel outside their window spins in circles – just like Ginny, who drinks too much and lashes out at anyone who doesn't like it.
She's lost any hope for her would-be acting career or a fresh incentive in life. Then in walks Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a studly young lifeguard who sees himself as a dramatist ready to give Broadway a new voice. "I relish larger-than-life characters," he tells us in banal voiceover. (Allen doesn't give the role many colors, which limits Timberlake’s performance.) The kid is a delusional prettyboy. But Ginny, who Winslet makes larger-than-life, sees him as her way out. They're both kidding themselves.
This is somber material, like something Mickey might write while imitating Clifford Odets, that socially-conscious playwright known for his tough talk and thrusting the audience into the middle of a dramatic conflict without preamble. In Barton Fink, the 1991 film from the Coen brothers, the title character played by John Turturro was created in the image of the Waiting for Lefty author, an up-from-poverty New York Jew whose plays championed the common man. Hollywood thought it wanted "that Barton Fink feeling," until his seriousness choked off the box office. You might get that "Barton Fink feeling" watching Wonder Wheel, since Allen lays low on the laughs to brings us in to the lives of loud desperation led by his characters.
Take Belushi's Humpty who, tired of his "mopey" wife and her "mopey" son, tries to reconcile with his adult daughter Caroline (a stellar Juno Temple). She's being pursued by the mob; the young woman has also taken a romantic interest in Mickey that sparks a final clash-by-night confrontation. The focus stays, as it should, on Ginny. The character draws on Blanche Dubois, the tragic heroine of the Tennessee Williams drama, A Streetcar Named Desire, who Allen reimagined for Cate Blanchett to play (to Oscar glory) in Blue Jasmine. Winslet, as always, goes her own way, delineating Ginny's selfishness and anger without negating her questing mind and heart. Her final speech about marriage (one of the writer-director's best) is a crusher.
All the sturm and drang is given a jewel-like setting by the legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and production designer Santo Loquasto. Still, there are valid criticisms of Wonder Wheel as a film that feels more like a stage play – its claustrophobic atmosphere can be stifling. But even covering familiar ground, Allen finds the blunt truth at its core. As Ginny is stripped of her fantasies and exposed to the harsh glare of reality, Winslet stands her ground, as if to say attention must be paid. It should be. Her performance is absolutely astounding.