Woody Allen’s 1950s-set “Wonder Wheel” is not a great movie, but you’ll have to admit 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. It’s an unavoidable symptom of the on-screen storyteller’s pretensions, a result of his graduate studies in European drama at NYU. (Allen, presumably the model for Mickey, also seems to fancy himself in the company of Shakespeare and Sophocles, but this film does little to advance that argument.)
What this preternaturally eloquent raconteur doesn’t tell you is just 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 is often accompanied by the song “Kiss of Fire” by Georgia Gibbs — is rampant, yet the film is oddly underbaked. (“Wonder Wheel” was produced and distributed by Amazon Studios. Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The story spun by Mickey concerns a love triangle — one that he is not merely an observer of but a participant in, at the nexus where two women’s affections come crashing together like waves on the beach. On one side is Kate Winslet’s Ginny, a former actress who now works as a waitress in a boardwalk clam house, and who 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 two women along until circumstances conspire to solve his romantic indecision for him. 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 that 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. Allen even films one scene with Ginny engulfed, bizarrely, in a cloud of cigarette smoke, in case you miss his point.
The good news is that Timberlake, Winslet and Temple are reliably watchable, and that the production design, by Allen’s longtime collaborator Santo Loquasto, is pretty, in a garish way. Scenes are alternately lit by bright, unfiltered sunlight and lurid red neon.
But the story itself is repetitive, much like the Ferris wheel that lends the film its title, and which is featured, oh so picturesquely, every now and again, in the background. As with that ride, the view provided by “Wonder Wheel” may be scenic, but it goes nowhere — and slowly.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains coarse language, smoking and mature thematic material, including some sexuality. 101 minutes.