For director Jonathan Levine, the best moment of making his comedy/drama “The Wackness” came when Ben Kingsley agreed to play the central role of a drug-addled Manhattan psychiatrist. Levine, a young filmmaker with one unreleased teen horror film to his credit (the festival-circuit favorite “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane”), knew he had just stepped up to the major leagues.
The thought of working with an actor of that stature is more intimidating than actually doing it, Levine said. It also helped that Kingsley was outfitted with a wig of shoulder-length curls. “Before he got to set, I was all freaked out about it. We all were. The most intimidated I was was when I would talk to him in his trailer before makeup or after makeup, because in the wig and the costume he’s kind of a schlub.”
“The Wackness” stars Famke Janssen, Nickelodeon tween idol Josh Peck, Olivia Thirlby, Mary-Kate Olsen and Method Man in a coming-of-age story set in 1990s New York City. The city’s anything-goes attitude is being reined in by new Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s initiatives against noisy portable radios, graffiti and public drunkenness. Like the city, each of the film’s characters is at a crossroads. Peck, playing against his wholesome TV image, portrays a college student who pays his therapist (Kingsley) with pot.
“Everyone asks if it’s an autobiographical story,” Levine said with a grin. “It is, to a certain extent - the way Josh’s character acts and feels, and details of the world I knew growing up. Beyond that, not so much. I did not deal drugs, though I certainly smoked a lot of pot as a kid. I’ve just started therapy. I would have loved to discover it as a teenager. It would have made life a lot easier!”
Peck and Thirlby (“Juno”) enter a head-over-heels love affair, while Kingsley leaves Janssen for a brief fling with the decades-younger Olsen. The adults in the film are even more lost than the adolescents, Levine said.
“As I get older and look around at the adults in my life, I do see it doesn’t get any easier,” Levine said. “So often in the movies it’s, ‘You’ve come of age and now you’re wise.’ It was my goal to paint a picture of progression and regression, one step forward and two steps back.
“No one knows the answers. I wanted to show all these people who don’t have the answers. I wanted to ask questions rather than provide answers myself.” Besides, he said, “it’s funnier to show people who are all screwed up.”
New York City itself becomes a supporting character in the film through lovingly re-created period touches. The calligraphic flourish of the graffiti tags, the 1990s pay phones, the pulse of nightlife recall the pre-Disneyfied city of yore.
“A lot of movies will do three weeks in Vancouver, then move to New York for the exteriors,” Levine said. He felt shooting entirely in the city was essential to capturing its texture. “For us we shot even the interiors. You can feel it, you know? It really infuses every part of the movie. The movies that I loved growing up, the early Woody Allen or Scorsese, that’s what I always wanted to try to emulate.”
While the characters aren’t vastly wiser at the end of the film, “they at least have their eyes open,” Levine said. “They’re less inebriated. Marijuana, Ritalin, Prozac, sex, money, these are all things people rely on to bring them happiness. You have to figure out what’s right for you. It’s everyone’s struggle.”