by Cynthia Citron

If you were a child growing up in New York in the 1950s, one of the peak adventures of your childhood might have been a trip to the beach at Coney Island and a ride on the Wonder Wheel, the 150-foot Ferris wheel that dominated the beach’s horizon. (As well as the joy of chomping on a Nathan’s hot dog, of course.)

Now, all these years later, auteur Woody Allen has created a film called “Wonder Wheel” that brilliantly captures what must be a snapshot from his own childhood, set in the amusement park which at one time was the largest in the United States.

In this film, however, WRITER Woody Allen has written a dramatic script so intense that it will suck the air right out of your lungs. In addition, DIRECTOR Woody Allen has coaxed Oscar-worthy performances out of its three leading actors: Jim Belushi, Kate Winslet, and Justin Timberlake.

Belushi, who presides over the beautiful hand-carved horses of the Coney Island carousel, is an angry, raging tyrant at home, bullying his unhappy wife.

His wife, played by Kate Winslet, is a distant, indifferent woman who considers this marriage a disastrous mistake. But she has the burden of a young son from her first husband, a man she didn’t know she loved until he left her. Their nasty little boy expresses his resentment by setting fires everywhere.

But then, along comes Justin Timberlake to “rescue” her. A young lifeguard at the beach, he easily seduces her into a passionate affair and becomes the focus of the film as he talks to the camera about his feelings.

Here Allen reprises a scene from Michael Dinner’s 1985 film “Heaven Help Us” in which Andrew McCarthy and Mary Stuart Masterson make love under a boardwalk in a driving rainstorm. Once again it is an effective moment.

The plot turns, however, with the arrival of Belushi’s daughter, Juno Temple, who had been estranged from her father for five years after having married a man he had disapproved of. Belushi’s tirade at seeing her compares with Marlon Brando’s outbursts in “Streetcar Named Desire.” And, as might be anticipated, Temple and Timberlake are immediately drawn to each other.

Allen has, however, added a whole convoluted subplot about Temple’s husband, from whom she is fleeing because he is a member of a mob about which “she knows everything”, including “where the bodies are buried.” It’s an unlikely digression from the love story, but what is Allen if not a master of the unlikely digression?

Not too surprisingly, the critical opinions aggregated by Rotten Tomatoes rated this film at 32% (out of 100%), with critics commenting that “the project never quite comes together”, “the love triangle is stagy and unfolds with way too many complications and betrayals”, and “Allen has never been less sharp”.

But a positive opinion from Graham Fuller in Screen International gets my vote. He says “It would be going too far to say Wonder Wheel is an instant Woody Allen classic, but it’s a reminder that he’s still a force to be reckoned with.”

In my view, the acting in “Wonder Wheel” is absolutely award-winning, and the beautiful filming of Coney Island has got to make you nostalgic, even if you’ve never been there.