Kate Winslet is in the Oscar race with her spectacular performance in Woody Allen’s “Wonder Wheel,” the closing night presentation of the New York Film Festival where it will have its world premiere. (There are no less than seven screenings and tickets are still available at some of them.)
An Amazon Studio release, which doesn’t even open until December 1, Winslet’s performance had critics raving at the press screening Friday morning.
A great choice for the NYFF, “Wonder Wheel” is set in the 1950’s against the backdrop of Coney Island’s Ferris wheel, which actually exists by that name and gives the film its title. The movie is not a comedy although, as in all Allen films, there are laughs, and the usual Allen concerns like whether tragedy is caused by fate or self created. Also lines like “the heart has its own hieroglyphics” or a similar variation sound very familiar.
Winslet is the heart and soul of “Wonder Wheel,” much as Cate Blanchett was in “Blue Jasmine.” Winslet plays Ginny, a frustrated wife and mother — to a 10 year-old pyromaniac no less — who is working in a dead end job as a waitress in an oyster joint on the Boardwalk. She’s about to turn 40 and feels life is passing her by. She’s married to Humpty, a Ralph Kramden-like lunkhead — a perfectly cast James Belushi — whose idea of giving his wife a good time is taking her fishing or to a ballgame. They met and married at a time of mutual desperation: she had just been dumped by her adoring drummer husband after he caught her cheating, and Humpty was trying to pull himself together after his wife’s illness and death.
A fading beauty who relives her glory days as a minor actress, Ginny feels alive again when she meets Mickey, a hunky lifeguard played by Justin Timberlake. Soon they have an affair. Like many Woody Allen movie characters, Mickey aspires to be a playwright and talks to the camera with all the Woody dialogue rhythms in perfect sync. But this is not a summer fling for Ginny, who falls hard for the much younger man and sees Mickey as a way out of her trapped existence.
Ginny’s husband operates the Coney Island Carousel and is a decent guy but hits her when he’s drinking, so Ginny hides the bottle. She’s basically dying of boredom. Things start going haywire when Humpty’s grown daughter Carolina, played by Juno Temple, shows up fleeing her gangster husband. There always seems to be gangsters somewhere in Woody Allen movies and soon two dangerous mobsters are on Carolina’s tail just as Mickey decides he’s in love with Ginny’s stepdaughter.
Winslet has never been better as a woman so on edge and so desperate her pain and jealousy are palpable as she realizes she’s losing her only lifeline to happiness: her lover is falling in love with her stepdaughter, a younger fresher version of herself.
Like “Blue Jasmine,” Ginny could have walked out of a Tennessee Williams play, and Winslet is so good at emboding her character’s obsessive love and desperation that I found myself aching for this woman who finds her last-ditch hopes of happiness dissolving.
Amazon made the decision to cancel the red carpet planned for closing night. They will go ahead with the after party at Tavern on the Green.