The Wackness(8/2/2008)


            I’ve never attended the Sundance Film Festival, but I can say that the output of movies from it has never really tempted me to rush out there.  The place does tend to get one or two really prestigious gems a year, but the movies that play there never seem to be up to the caliber of the films that are programmed into international festivals like Cannes, Venice, and Toronto.  What’s worse the unadventurous taste of programmers there seem to have lead to the creation of the “Sundancey” genre; coming of age movies set New York, L.A. or a small town that deal with substance abuse and/or a dysfunctional family.  The movie to come out of this year’s Sundance film festival was The Wackness, a movie that was (surprise!) a coming of age movie set in New York that deals with substance abuse and a dysfunctional family.

            Let’s film in the blanks, the person coming of age here is Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck), an eighteen year old living in New York circa 1994 who has just graduated from high school and is depressed about his future.  Luke has very little respect for his parents (dysfunctional family: check), who he sees as acting childishly, particularly his father (David Whol) who has recently put the family into financial trouble.  To make money, Luke uses an disheveled Icee cart as a front for a small time pot dealing operation (substance abuse: check).  His favorite customer is a psychiatrist named Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley) who’s having a mid-life crisis because of the troubles he’s having relating to his wife (Famke Janssen) and stepdaughter (Olivia Thirlby) who Luke knows from school (Dysfunctional family: that makes two dysfunctional families).  Squires lets Luke give Squires free pot in exchange for free consoling, but it becomes clear that the middle aged Squires is living vicariously through Luke’s youthful stories.

            Luke Shapiro is not the type of character that is usually the subject of movies; he’s too thoughtful and quirky for movies targeted at people his own age, but to cocky and immature to really be of interest to the average movie directed toward adults.  As such he’s probably a bit closer to the way an actual teenager would act than one is likely to see in most movies.  Despite his occupation as a drug dealer, the kid is not a real gangster at all, in fact there’s a really refreshing innocence to him.  He’s not a popular kid in school, but he’s also not some kind of stereotypical nerd, he’s described in the film as being “the most popular unpopular guy ins school.”  He’s fascinated by the mid-90s Hip-Hop music that populates the movie’s soundtrack, and even though he doesn’t really fit with that culture he doesn’t seem like a complete wannabe either.  He talks with heavy use of dated urban slang, partly in an attempt to be cool but also out of a genuine bond he at least imagines he has with the world of the music he loves.  This slang combined with his unconfident mumbling speech patterns are a bit jarring at first, but this is a deliberate choice on the part of Josh Peck and writer/director Johnathan Levine, this is an accurate depiction of how real teenagers talk even if it isn’t the most aurally pleasing speech pattern. 

           The fact that the filmmakers prevented Luke and other characters from simply filling stereotypes is one of the movies biggest strengths, most movies are pleased to lump teenage characters into retarded John Hughes stereotypes and play them out like that the whole way.  The depiction of Dr. Squires is a little closer to the realm of cliché, as we have seen this kind of ex-hippie midlife crisis character a lot recently, but Ben Kingsley plays him in a way that makes him more interesting than he probably was on the page.  The other interesting performance comes from Olivia Thirlby as Dr. Squire’s daughter and object of Luke’s desire.  Between her performances in this film, Juno, and Snow Angels we’ve seen a lot of good work in diverse roles from Thirlby and she may just be the next indie-queen or even an outright movie star someday. 

            I said before that this film was set in 1994, well this isn’t as trivial a detail here as one would think.  Levine is clearly in love with the mid-90s and has populated the film to the brim with nostalgic details and historical set-dressing from the year.  Aside from the slang and the soundtrack with get references to Mayor Giuliani, Forrest Gump, Beverly Hills 90210, and an incredibly unsubtle shot of the not yet fallen World Trade Center.  What do these references bring to the table aside from some nostalgic fun?  Not much really, in fact they frequently detract from it.  The Clinton era may seem like a while ago but fashions and settings haven’t really changed that dramatically since then, so the viewer never really settles into it as a period piece until one of these references pop out of nowhere and take you out of the movie to remind you how much Johnathan Levine loves and remembers the year that was 1994.  Boiled down, the story is pretty much universal, so I can’t see too much of a reason why Levine decided to make this a period piece other than to add some flavor to an otherwise pretty routine coming of age tale.

           As for the soundtrack, there is definitely some good music here but it’s not great to the point where they should be bill boarded in the trailer.  This is mostly mainstream east coast hip-hop, and 1994 was a good year for it.  The two big albums of the year, Nas’ “Illmatic” and Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ready to Die” both have tracks represented here, there are alos tracks from A Tribe Called Quest, R. Kelly, Biz Mackie, Will Smith, The Wu Tang Clan, and Raekwon.  Some of the tracks are chosen because they’re truly good, others because they fit in better with the world.  For example the Biggie track featured is “The What,” which is one of the most forgettable tracks off the classic “Ready to Die” album, but its inclusion here makes sense as it focuses on subjects like sex and drugs rather than the hardships and struggles of the more hardcore tracks, and one can tell why Luke Shapiro would relate more to it.  I do however have some problems with the cheesy way that some of the tracks lyrically relate to the action on screen rather than simply set a mood, like a sex scene set to R. Kelly’s “Bump and Grind” or a the use of Biz Mackie’s “Just a Friend” shortly after Squire’s daughter says Luke’s “just a friend.”

            The film is something of a dramedy, it is never straight up going for laughs, but it is by no means searing drama either.  There aren’t that many belly laughs, but I did chuckle quite a bit mainly at some clever lines that pop up just enough to not overpopulate the movie. This is also a movie that’s largely unafraid to break the fourth wall, like in the opening scene where a CGI thought bubble comes up on screen leading to a brief fantasy scene on a subway, later the sidewalk Luke steps on begins to light up like in the Michael Jackson “Billie Jean” music video to express his ecstasy after a fairly successful date.  These are not things that occur in every other scene and only pop up sporadically.  Like with the 1994 references and soundtrack they can be an unneeded distraction and again seem to only be window dressing to hide that this is the kind of story we’ve seen before. 

            That’s the main draw back here, deep down this isn’t an original story, and without all the neat tricks it would be a 95-minute cliché.  Like I said before, this is a prototypical Sundance storyline and there tend to be two or three movies that follow that formula which storm out of that festival every year.  If you’ve seen Rushmore, Garden State, Good Will Hunting, and The Squid and the Whale you might know what I’m getting at.  There’s even a sort of twist on The Graduate in that Luke befriends Squires before moving in on his daughter against her father’s wishes.  At this point most coming of age movies are going to have to collide with each other, as coming of age stories is just inherently not that different in the grand scheme of things.  The trick is to try to make your story stand out even if deep down it doesn’t, and Jonathan Levine tries like mad to do just that and never quite succeeds.  

            This one is a close call, there’s definitely fun to be had with The Wackness, especially if nostalgia is your bag.  I really do love the Luke character and the way Levine prevents him from being a stock stereotype.  Levine’s other choices are hit or miss and ultimately unable to hide the fact that this un-clichéd character is in a clichéd story.  Ultimately I’m going to have to say that this isn’t for everyone and most can probably wait for it to come out as a DVD rental. 

**1/2 out of four


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