The Wackness (2008) dir. Jonathan Levine
Starring: Josh Peck, Ben Kingsley, Olivia Thirlby, Famke Janssen
“The Wackness” is a well-intentioned coming of age story of a New York City high school graduate set in the summer of 1994. Enjoyment of the film will depend largely on whether you like the main character. For me, it was intense dislike, but for other 20 and 30-somethings the time, place, situations and decisions will likely bring back either joyful or haunting memories of being a 19 year old.
This is the first 1990’s nostalgia film, and it’s just about the right time now considering filmmakers who were teenagers in the 90’s will be in their mid-thirties now. It happened with the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Levine is the first to stake his claim. Don’t think “The Wackness” is “Dazed and Confused” or “American Graffiti” for the generation X though, it’s a contained film with limited characters and a heavy concentration on the relationship of Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) and Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley).
Shapiro is a drug-dealing white hip-hopper. He travels around his neighbourhood selling weed from his faux-ice cream cart. He has a unique friendship with Dr. Squires, a fallen from grace psychologist who trades his insights for drugs. Shapiro pines after Squires’ daughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), who finally shows some interest and agrees to go out with him. It’s a blissful affair until Shapiro makes a fatal mistake which threatens to turn away Stephanie for good.
It wasn’t so much Shapiro’s character which rubbed me the wrong way as it was Josh Peck’s performance. His wide-eyed, droopy mouth mumbling and laboured mannerisms befit his character’s personality – a shy, awkward nave who masks his insecurities with oversized hip-hop clothes, street-speak and cool drug dealing. Unfortunately mumbling without charisma is just dopiness. Don’t fault Peck though, the director could easily have told the actor to open his eyes and close his mouth when he wasn’t talking. If so, we would have seen a difference performance.
Jonathan Levine drops a lot of 90’s references – too many in fact. The cameo references include Nintendo, Game Boy, Tetris, Kurt Cobain, Rudy Giuliani, A Tribe Called Quest. Whether it’s a close-up of a Game Boy, or Shapiro blowing the dust from his Nintendo system or the number of musical references to ‘Boyz 2 Men’ and other bands of the era, its a concerted effort to pull a cheap laugh from the audience.
Ben Kingsley provides the only interesting character - a psychologist with a love for weed, and a hatred for his domestic life - who goes on his own journey of self-discovery (a midlife crisis really). He has the best lines and scenes in the film, which are enhanced through his against-type casting. His make-out scene with Mary-Kate Olson is funny, because he was in “Gandhi” and “Schindler’s List.”
The cinematography is all wrong and wildly distracting. DOP Petra Corner shoots the film with the palette of an action film – shot in anamorphic widescreen with its colours muted to an ugly greenish-grey. If Levine was biting the early 90’s style, he’d have bathed his film in bold saturated colours – a la “The Do Right Thing” or “Crooklyn”.
These are all superficial criticisms, but one essential element is missing from the film – a definable goal for Shapiro. The sessions with Squires expound on many things – music, sex, drugs, relationships – but we never get a sense of what he desires. Is it love? Is it the exotic unattainable Stephanie? Whatever it is, it’s too vague a carrot to chase after. And so, the film lost me quickly and early.