What Woody Allen and his collaborators have accomplished here -- in one of his darkest dramas, taking place in one of his brightest settings -- is beautiful ugliness. Wonder Wheel, named for the most famous attraction at the film's Coney Island location, is full of people haunted by their histories: infidelity, impulsive choices that led to criminal ties, alcoholism, domestic abuse, callous behavior that cost everything and traumatized children. They're all part of the drama that's framed by Mickey, the lifeguard/former sailor/playwright/leading man who narrates from an admittedly unreliable perspective. It's likely no accident that Mickey has some similarities with Tennessee Williams' characters, including Tom from The Glass Menagerie; Ginny (Winslet), too, isn't far removed from Williams' Blanche DuBois or Maggie the Cat. Winslet turns in one of the best performances of her great career, inhabiting Ginny's moments of soaring hope and painful deterioration. And Belushi delivers surely his finest work as the husband who at first seems like a drunken lout but then reveals a beating heart capable of change and love. Temple, too, has layers to reveal as the daughter on the run. These characters, plus Ginny's son (whose pyromania mirrors his mother's mania), are all locked in a drama that inextricably leads from the candy colors of a beach-set amusement park to somewhere unlit and starless.
Legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (known for Bernardo Bertolucci movies including The Last Tango in Paris and Francis Ford Coppola films including Apocalypse Now) rejoins Allen after Café Society to craft perhaps the richest visual world of the storied filmmaker's career. Storaro bathes scenes in dusky ambers and shades of blue; bold, colorful choices that make the scenes look painted. He brings new camera movement and framing to Allen's work, energizing it. Along with longtime Allen production designer Santo Loquasto, Storaro creates the feeling of being inside the beautifully crafted set of an Arthur Miller or Eugene O'Neill or Williams play -- clearly intentionally, in keeping with Mickey's playwright's perspective. That might also explain Allen's odd use of repetitive, almost amateurish dialogue in the film's first extended scene, possibly establishing this as the world of a young writer's mind. Wonder Wheel is perhaps Allen's most technically accomplished film, lush and delicious to view, though its darkness and morally asymmetrical universe will be a turnoff to some.