The Wackness

[22 January 2009]

By Barbara Herman

It’s summer in New York City, 1994. Mayor Giuliani has begun his cleanup, Kurt Cobain has recently committed suicide, and Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck), an upper-middle class hip hop-loving kid who sells pot to folks on the Upper East Side, is about to graduate from high school.

When The Wackness opens, Luke is in the middle of a psychotherapy session with Dr. Jeffrey Squires (Ben Kingsley), a pill-popping, alcoholic mess of a shrink. But this is no typical 50-minute hour. When Luke gets up to leave, he pays with a dime bag of marijuana, the same drug he sells to Dr. Squires’ stepdaughter, Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby).

“Do you ever feel kinda of like a fuckup,” Luke asks him, “Buyin’ weed from same dude that deals to your daughter?” But Dr. Squires isn’t the self-reflective type. Unhappy with his much-younger virago wife Kristin (Famke Janssen, in a thankless role) and bored listening to rich patients talk about their mundane problems, Jeffrey is too busy having a mid-life crisis to question his unseemly relationship with Luke. They soon become odd friends, hitting up bars together, getting arrested for tagging the subway, and making each other mixed tapes.

This Harold and Maude-like premise, with shades of The Graduate, Kids and countless other coming-of-age movies almost works, but The Wackness gets bogged down by a clichéd story and characters, an overly self-conscious evocation of New York City in the ‘90s, and an eccentric performance by Ben Kingsley that calls so much attention to itself as weird that it threatens to take over the entire film.

The DVD bonus features provide two clues to the miscast Kingsley’s performance. First, it seems Kingsley was cast almost on a whim. Said one producer, “We thought it would be ironic and iconic to see Gandhi with a bong.” As for Kingsley, he admits he was channeling Dr. Squires as Laurel to Luke Shapiro’s Hardy. (That explains a lot.)

Mostly, The Wackness misses an opportunity to explore the clash it sets up between Baby Boomers and Gen Xers. Squires longs to be young and wild again, like Luke, while Luke wants an intact family with a strong patriarch and a girlfriend who sees sex as something more than just hooking up. Are these fantasies equally deluded? Is one less deluded than the other? Forty years after The Graduate asked these questions, a film like The Wackness needs to provide some kind of update, by either refining the question or providing an answer, rather than simply reiterating and romanticizing the dilemma.

The closest The Wackness gets to an epiphany is a cringe-inducing speech given by Stephanie on a jaunt she and Luke make to her family’s summer house on Fire Island. It’s a trip in which he’ll lose his virginity to her and watch her interest in him wane even before they’ve returned to Manhattan. Luke, according to Stephanie, takes everything too seriously. “You have a shitty way of looking at things,” the Ritalin-snorting, chain-smoking Stephanie declares.  “I just look at the dopeness. You just look at the wackness.”

This odd moment rings false for a few reasons. Glassy-eyed Stephanie seems to exemplify all that is wrong with the world, according to the film’s ethos, and Olivia Thirlby’s undeveloped character has in no way shown us she sees things in the world as “dope”. Throughout most of The Wackness, she’s seems on dope: vacant, cold and high. And is this really the film’s message, “Don’t worry, be happy”? (A later scene on the beach with Luke and Dr. Squires confirms, unfortunately, that this might in fact be the case.)

An appealing actor, Josh Peck does his best to show us Luke’s confusion and awkwardness, often with a light touch of humor, but we don’t ever quite find out who he is. How, for example, did this upper middle-class teenager with plans to go to a “safety school” after high school ever hook up with the Jamaican drug lords carrying Uzis who supply him with the marijuana he sells out of an ice cream cart around the city? Why, exactly, is he so depressed? Luke’s personality and plight (ineffectual parents who just don’t understand, a cold girlfriend, and unpopularity in high school) are just not interesting (or particular) enough for us to care.

Not as exuberant as Raising Victor Vargas, not as extreme as Kids, and not as quirky as Harold and Maude, The Wackness wants us to love it in spite of its banality. Ultimately, it’s neither dope nor wack — it’s just kind of boring.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/69308-the-wackness/