For filmmakers, nostalgia is a double edged sword. Pick the right era, and audiences are with you and your cinematic wistfulness. Dress things up in the wrong period, however, and you threaten to alienate anyone without your fond memory set. This is the problem facing Jonathan Levine’s rap-tinged dramedy The Wackness. Celebrating the gansta days of the early ‘90s, a time frame foaming with post-grunge grooves and early Clinton optimism may seem like something worth commemorating. But all Sundance standing ovations aside, there is a central problem with this movie that makes it a rather unfulfilling journey down short term memory loss lane.
It’s the Summer of ‘94. Luke Shapiro has just graduated from high school. Over the next four months he intends to hang out, hook up, and deal drugs. Then, it’s off to college. Selling pot from a pushcart, he’s a neighborhood fixture. But when he sells some weed to ditzy psychiatrist Dr. Squires, he soon finds himself in indirect therapy. Turns out that Luke has several pending problems. His parents are constantly fighting over finances, and there’s a distinct possibility they will be evicted from their apartment. Even worse, his raging hormones have the young man desperate and dateless. But when he takes a sudden shine to Squires step-daughter Stephanie, it changes the dynamic between all three of them.
Ben Kingsley, Josh Peck, Olivia Thirlby, Famke Janssen, Mary-Kate Olsen, Jane Adams, Method Man
(Sony Classics; US theatrical: 4 Jul 2008 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 29 Aug 2008 (General release); 2008)
Stripped of all its summer swelter and hip hip revisionism, The Wackness is really just another in a long line of quirky indie character studies. Luke is the typical horny teen, unable to make sense of a life that reeks of insecurity (personal, parental, professional) while working his wannabe “wigger” poses. His pot-addicted shrink, Dr. Squires, is the typical ‘physician, heal thyself’ symbol of authority in need of its own intervention. His wife is nothing more than a tepid trophy, a used to be hottie who can’t quite acknowledge her newfound status as a ‘nottie’, while their daughter Stephanie is the kind of emotional cipher that only a small outsider film could champion. In mainstream Hollywood, this human user would be vamped up in Goth gear and given some kind of eating/mental/psychological disorder.
As a result, your enjoyment of The Wackness hinges on how well you cotton to these obvious eccentrics - or better yet, how you react to the actors trying to bring them to life. The cast is more than capable, especially Josh Peck, who seems hellbent to leave his Nickelodeon days in the dust. Through a thick haze of marijuana smoke, and a face overflowing with black culture epithets, he’s quite effective in a major mouth breather kind of way. Director Jonathan Levine obviously doesn’t care that his star spends most of the movie with his jaw agape, eyes transfixed on a future which is apparently playing out somewhere just off screen. To call it navel gazing would falsely give the ever-present gesture some direction. Like the movie itself, Peck is perfectly capable - it’s the ‘what’ of his actions that is up for discussion.
Similarly, Sir Ben Kingsley continues his odd downward spiral into career irrelevance by playing a psychologist who causes more insanity than he cures. Certainly, the director must dig seeing the artist formerly known as Gandhi macking on a waifish Olson twin (Mary-Kate, if you’re counting) and there are times when Squires resonates as an unlikely if unassuming life coach. But with just the slightest ‘Nu Yawk’ honk hiding his droll British-ness, and a wardrobe that seems lifted from a Miami Beach rummage sale, he’s all put on. We want to understand why this mad doctor still loves his wife, why his step-child’s virtue (or lack thereof) is so uncomfortable for him. There are layers of Squires that Levine will not let us in on, and it causes us to grow frustrated with this quaint quack.
The weakest link here, however, is Olivia Thirlby’s Stephanie. As an object of affection, she’s more ordinary than obsession. She comes across as spoiled and rather simplistic, hedonism without a context to enjoy such high living. Luke’s lustful stares may give us some meaning to their potential partnership, but the truth is that theirs is a relationship we can never support. She will clearly destroy him, and he will never ever achieve the kind of ardor nirvana he is looking for. The doomed nature of their pairing fails to provide the dramatics Levine is looking for, and when accented by Kingsley’s overprotective panto, The Wackness runs into a decided dead end. As the narrative meanders toward its perfunctory, all things must pass conclusion, we start to wonder why we wasted our time.
Clearly, Levine is looking at the ‘90s Big Apple through a pair of reflective rose-colored goggles. He sees New York as a Giuliani-inspired ghost town, a changing metropolis as a series of sweltering backstreets and out of frame ambience. Squires delivers the mandatory “this city is changing” monologue, hoping that audiences outside Manhattan actually care. It’s a lot like the graduated cameo appearance of true hip hop icon Method Man. Sporting a convincing Caribbean accent and looking every bit the pusher with a heart of gold, we want more of the authenticity he brings. But Levine isn’t really interested in perception. He believes his characters, and the four months they spend in vignette like exploration, will be enough to pull us along.
And for a while, it is. For those who still see the ‘90s as an integral part of their maturation, a generation now hitting their late ‘20s and tired of the world web weariness of existence, The Wackness will function like a patchouli-laced blast from the past. It will seem realistic even though it begs fantasy, and will sound authentic even if the constant slanging of the era grows Hella-tired, yo. But for older/younger film fans wondering if there’s more to this movie than sensimilla and shout outs to urban parlance, the answer will be underwhelming at best. As a study of personalities in fashionable free fall, this is one scattered, smoke-filled failure. While it has some intriguing elements, this backwards glancing bong hit will leave you hungry for less, not more.