Woody Allen is back on that streetcar named Desire, again. But this time — with “Wonder Wheel” — it stops at Stillwell Ave.
Like his “Blue Jasmine,” Allen’s latest borrows from the Tennessee Williams classic and its story of a coarse husband, a daydreaming heroine, a sudden visit, a violent ending.
“Wonder Wheel,” however, moves everything out to 1950s Coney Island, where dumpy Humpty runs the carousel, and his sad wife Ginny mopes around, mooning over her past.
Then a new, cute, much younger lifeguard has her living in the present again — and maybe dreaming of a brighter future.
Until Humpty’s daughter from his first marriage arrives on their doorstep, and starts making her own moves on the boy on the beach.
It’s a slightly stagy setup, providing lots of melodrama to chew on — as well as food for Allen’s critics. At one point, Ginny complains that Humpty treats his grown daughter “like your girlfriend” — a line that suddenly dredges up more than 30 years of real-life scandals and accusations.
But there are also some great performances to take you back into the drama, starting with Kate Winslet as Ginny.
Self-involved and probably self-deluding (did she really do “The Iceman Cometh” in summer stock?) Ginny’s headed for a crash. But will her new boy toy soften the blow, or speed it up? Winslet is fierce, fiery, funny — think Bette Davis at her best.
And she’s supported by some surprisingly good work from a sweeter-than-usual Juno Temple, and Jim Belushi, who plays the blustering Humpty as more Ralph Kramden than Stanley Kowalski.
The one sore thumb in this fistful of great performances is Justin Timberlake as the happy hunk these two women fight over.
He looks right, in a clean-cut, I-like-Ike kind of way, but he sounds wrong. Wearing his New York accent like a second-hand coat, he spends most of the film tediously telling us what’s going on, a yammering tour guide on a trip into the past.
But Winslet is terrific, with a big, emotional, awards-bait scene at the end. Allen, meanwhile, does an expert job of recreating the old, long-gone Coney, the real New York locations helped along by some digital trickery.
And once you look past the obvious homages — it’s bad enough to write a character who acts like Blanche DuBois, without having her note the similarity — you’ll see a bright, touching, tearful little drama.
It’s not top Woody, perhaps. What is, anymore? But on a cold day, it’s as welcome as the familiar smell of greasy fries, the feel of gritty sand, the winking of those far-off colored lights.
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