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Coney Island’s Wonder Wheel, with cars riding on tracks through the middle of the frame rather than resting on the outside rim, is an apt metaphor for the center-less characters of Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel. In the film, which premiered at the 2017 New York Film Festival, no one stands on solid ethical or emotional ground, and, unlike almost any other Woody Allen film, no character wants to. They ride through life letting gravity take them where it will, never looking up at the sky and asking: “What does it all mean?”

Has Allen himself found some kind of footing in the world in his late age? Wonder Wheel has a lot of firsts for him. He returns to his childhood haunt, Coney Island, which we haven’t seen since those few soft gray scenes in Annie Hall (even the indulgently nostalgic Radio Days doesn’t have a Coney Island scene). It’s his first film set in the decade of his adolescence, the 1950s. It’s also his first film since Radio Days where the characters are not exuberantly wealthy at either the beginning or the end of the film. Here Allen seems to be stopping and examining himself as a human being, rather than his particular circumstances. As such, the movie is painfully honest and will be equally difficult for Allen’s attackers and apologists. In a way he hasn’t quite done since Stardust Memories, Allen has abandoned what audience he has left to plummet into a film of substance for us all. Will anyone notice it? Probably not.

If people do notice anything, it will undoubtedly be Kate Winslet. Reviewers have already outlined the most noticeable flaws of this film. They have overlooked what is actually important in order to say in so many paragraphs what could be said in one sentence: “it’s not Manhattan.”

Well, even those writers can’t deny that there is only one movie that is Manhattan. Still, these staunch formalists, who seem to go to movies to be dazzled rather than to think, will have to admit that Winslet alone is worth the price of admission. Through her character, and her sneakily masterful performance, we can navigate the film as an intensely confessional work by its director.

Winslet plays Ginny, a waitress at Ruby’s Clams on the Coney Island boardwalk, who is wracked by migraines from the shooting gallery below her apartment. Coney Island symbolizes more than a sign of the joyous feast to which Ginny will never be a part; it is literally the last stop on the Q train, and figuratively the last stop in her life. She lives with her husband Humpty who runs the merry-go-round and her young son from a past marriage, Richie. Business at Coney is lousy and history tells us it will only get worse. Her marriage is at a dead end with neither the spark of real conflict nor of romance. She will spend the rest of the film trying to change this—desperately at times; at others, charmingly and passionately.

Ginny is a creation filled with clichés and contradictions. She is a character quintessentially of the mid-century American theater, made of a deadly combination of ambition and hopelessness. Her first husband, a jazz drummer, is dead, and it’s suggested at one point that she killed him. In the drudge of her marriage with Humpty, she desperately turns to an unlikely romance with a lifeguard, Mickey, played by Justin Timberlake in rather mediocre form. They make love under the boardwalk. They take walks and talk about their pasts and their future. He wants to write plays and she wants to act in them. Yet something seems utterly impossible about their plans. Ginny’s years of experience hold her back, while Mickey races ahead with the naïvety of youth. Perhaps Ginny has reached a point where her luggage is no longer portable. In a painful moment she reveals her age—lying a few times and eventually sheepishly admitting she’s 39. Ginny hasn’t lost the spark in her eyes, but she has roots planted and Mickey does not.

The real chess game begins when Humpty’s estranged daughter from another marriage, Carolina, enters the picture, with the mob out to kill her. Eventually Mickey and Carolina begin an affair, and his love for Ginny tragically fades. This time the dream doesn’t seem as fatalistic. They revel in their youth, leaving Ginny on the sidelines to watch the very game she used to play. In this drab cage Ginny becomes the central pawn in Woody Allen’s moral quandary. The film by this point has made the leap from a Eugene O’Neill drama to a kind of Kantian treatise. The mob arrives, and by a series of long-shot chances it seems certain that they’ll kill Carolina. Ginny is the only one who can stop them. Here Allen plays around with the standby femme fatale trope. Ginny’s device for immediate, lustful revenge is to finally do exactly what everyone has asked of her all along—absolutely nothing.

Can we blame her? What the film offers us is a startlingly sympathetic perspective on a character who might be classified as a sociopath. But we see the world through her eyes, her ability to cope by painting her depressing end with some of the most vivid colors ever to appear in a Woody Allen movie, courtesy of Vittorio Storaro. We understand her perspective, and her entrapment. Morality becomes a carelessly fluid concept, reduced first to an afterthought and later a piece of baggage that we drag through life. In Ginny, Allen reflects on his past, painfully acknowledging the growing heaviness that comes with each closing chapter. Can we read into what his own mistakes (or crimes) may be? At least we can interpret his belief that everyone operates on his same devil-may-care principles. If Wonder Wheel is a depressing movie—and it is indeed quite depressing—it’s because it exists in a universe where the illusion of universal truth is brushed away just a little more freely than in our own.