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The Wackness

Director: Jonathan Levine
Cast: 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)

Review [22.Jan.2009]

Give Me Some of Those Happy Pills

When I looked out my window,
What do you think I see?
And when I looked in my window,
So many different people to be.
—Donovan, “Season of the Witch”

“I’m havin’ trouble getting’ laid,” sighs Luke (Josh Peck). His therapist sighs too, “That’s a common problem.”

Too, too true, especially in nostalgic movies, with period soundtracks, hot summer nights, and boys coming of age. The Wackness is like that, exploiting Luke’s decidedly odd—and mostly inappropriate—friendship with that therapist, Jeff Squires (Ben Kingsley). It’s not only that the doctor advises him in matters sexual and pseudo-emotional (or, as he phrases it, “the pussy quest”), in exchange for marijuana. Collecting his 1/4, Squires reminds his client/supplier that by rights, he’s got another 48 minutes. Luke stands up to leave: “I’m not feeling all this feeling shit today.”

It’s 1994. Luke’s just graduated from high school, bothered enough by his parents’ noisy arguments over money that he rationalizes his dealing as a way to maintain the household while his father so odiously fails. “Is something going on at home,” wonders Squires, seemingly idly. “My parents act like kids,” Luke assesses. “My life sucks.” Squires nods, so Luke presses ahead: “I’m mad depressed, yo. Give me some of those happy pills, we’ll call it a day.” 

Er, Luke loves his hip-hop, yo, and his movie’s soundtrack is filled with tracks to make sure you know that: Craig Mack, Biggie, Raekwon, and Nas (“The World is Yours,” duly telegraphing An Important Theme), typically over Dealing Montages. In these, you see that Luke buys from Jamaican-dealer stereotype Percy (Method Man, who appears under his own duet with Biggie, “The What”), that he’s devised a system efficient, emblematic, and vaguely comic, carting huge plastic bags of dope in an ice cream cart, leaving it on the sidewalk outside each building he enters to make delivery. Apparently always on call, he’s amiable and low-key, even kind of charming for lonely customers in search of paid-for, minimalist human contact, like the gauzy-skirted, desperately shy Elanor (Jane Adams).

Still, Luke wants more and, despite what he tells Squires, sex isn’t all he has in mind. Intent on immersing himself in the romance his parents can’t fathom, he defies the high school social hierarchy (that is, he conforms exactly to high school movie expectations) by falling for the popular girl, Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby). Lovely, bored, and intrigued, at least, by his most excellent weed. Understanding himself as the “most popular of the unpopular,” Luke is suitably enchanted by her brief attention; in turn, she may be charmed by his abject devotion, his desperate efforts to impress her, but she’s exceedingly poorly drawn, an imprecise symbol more than a young woman with her own desires and confusions. By the time she voices the film’s title (concerning Luke’s “shitty attitude,” she laments, “I look at the dopeness, but you just look at the wackness”), she’s got nowhere to go but down.

The fact that Stephanie is also Squires’ stepdaughter is not incidental, of course. This damning plot point works in two directions, as Squires is currently furious at his chilly wife Kristin (Famke Janssen) and sees her daughter as a next-generation abuser of decent men’s hearts. That neither the movie nor the doctor imagines he’s part of his marriage problem (his smoking is a symptom of his sadness and loss, not his carelessness, narcissism or cruelty) grants him a pathetic sort of poignancy, while Kristin can’t win for losing, appearing repeatedly in shadows, her face stern and repeatedly cast in profile, looking away from her husband.

As part of the class that does not have to concern itself with Mayor Giuliani’s infamous crackdowns on street crime, the obviously named Squires seeks solace he can afford. Among his options is a raucous and mostly unseemly faux-youthfulness: he starts hanging out with Luke and his buddies, drinking and carousing and—eww—having phone-booth sex with a slutty, overly-mascaraed rich girl named Union (Mary-Kate Olsen, of all people). “We need to fix ourselves first,” Squires advises Luke, even as his own bad choices seem signs of his utter inability to fix himself.

As the two bereft males pursue their circuitous bonding, the film offers occasional pleasures, most premised on Peck’s curious looks askance and restrained performance (up against a script full of overstatement). In contrast to Squires’ tiresome woe-is-me shenanigans (“Fuck her, fuck ‘em all,” he says of Stephanie and, no surprise, all women), Luke looks almost plausible, an adolescent done in by miscalculations and neediness. Most oddly, Stephanie ends up being sort of right about what he sees: As much as Luke listens to hip-hop, he’s finally so turned inward that he can’t see what makes the music so galvanizing, its rage and resistance against oppressive structures. Blinded by his formula, Luke can only blame those devious females.


Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.

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