The Wackness

The Wackness is a too familiar nostalgic movie, with period soundtrack, hot summer nights, and boys coming of age.

The Wackness

Director: Jonathan Levine
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Josh Peck, Olivia Thirlby, Famke Janssen, Mary-Kate Olsen, Jane Adams, Method Man
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Sony Classics
First date: 2008
UK Release Date: 2008-08-29 (General release)
US Release Date: 2008-07-04 (Limited release)
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.





90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.


Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

A Lesson from the Avengers for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.


Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.


Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.


First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?


HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.


Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.


How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.


Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.


Paul Weller Dazzles with the Psychedelic and Soulful 'On Sunset'

Paul Weller's On Sunset continues his recent streak of experimental yet tuneful masterworks. More than 40 years into his musical career, Weller sounds as fresh and inspired as ever.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.