Archive for The Wackness

The Wackness

Posted in close analysis, Reviews with tags , , , on November 17, 2008 by babydylan

Recently Alex and Eugene saw The Wackness at Nova. Alex really liked it. Eugene didn’t so much. They both went away and tried to write their thoughts on the picture. Here is what they came up with.

The Wackness: A Review – by Eugene Ford.

Personally I find the early nineties to have been the best time for both music and film, with Nirvana, Sonic Youth, The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols all being amongst my favourite bands, whilst pictures such as Heavy, Poison, Kids, Clerks, Welcome to the Dollhouse and of course, Pulp Fiction can all be praised for their original, hard and cutting edge vision. The Wackness, a feature from writer/director Jonathan Levine, won the audience award at this years Sundance Film Festival, which is due somewhat to its perfect capture of a New York in the early nineteen nineties, a period characterised by flannel, ‘lost youth’, Rudolph Giuliani and the ‘weird‘ music and films mentioned before.

Seventeen year old Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck), is a hip-hop obsessed white kid, dealing weed out of his ‘ice-cream’ cart to an assortment of clients, including the hugely underrated Jane Adams, a surprisingly good Mary-Kate Olsen and Luke’s shrink Dr Squires (Ben Kingsley) who is payed for his sessions with pot. When Luke begins a relationship with Stephanie (Juno’s Olivia Thirlby) another client who happens to be Dr Squires step daughter, Dr Squires moves past his doctor/patient relationship to begin a friendship with Luke.

The film is hard to characterise because it uneasily blends the drama and the comedy. The relationship with Stephanie, who seems both genuine and insincere, is handled in a way that is honest and real. They begin a friendship that is natural and spontaneous, they go to her parents beach house for some fun in the sun, he tells her he loves her, and they arrive home and break up soon after, a chain of events that is significant for some young people. This dramatic part of the story is done well.

Yet it’s blended in with the relationship between Luke and Dr Squires, an element that is meant to be both funny and poignant. They get drunk together, they try and pick up, they graffiti a wall, they get arrested, they take drugs, and then one feigns suicide whilst the other tries to talk him out of it. In the midst of this are ‘jokes’ which are there to lighten the mood, although they work better at stopping the film being what it should and could have been, an honest, unflinching, and effective look at a depressed adult and teen.

Whenever I watch a film from the makers of ‘adult comedy’, i.e. Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and so on, I’m always struck by really good ideas and themes that are lurking just below the surface of the picture, because the ‘jokes‘ are dominating the film. Similarly I think this is what annoys me most about The Wackness, although it has taken me awhile to realise it. It tries to work as both a comedy and a drama, films which do this successfully would include Fargo and No Country for Old Men (in fact anything by the Coens). The really funny elements of the early 90’s are lost because the picture wasn’t a complete comedy, whilst the dramatic elements of the same era are lost because it wasn’t a complete drama.

That is not to say that the film isn’t good on other levels. It’s certainly original, if not purely for the story line alone, the performances are great, especially Ben Kingsley as Dr. Squires, and I love how the relationship between Luke and Stephanie is not ‘cut and dried’ and typically romantic. Yet the film is burdened with being set in a pre-nine eleven New York, an element that – in my mind – overshadowed the whole film, and guaranteed any of the jokes to be followed with my uneasy laughter.

I got mad love for you shorty. That’s on the real.

I got mad love for you shorty. That’s on the real.

The Wackness: a close analysis – by Alex Lagerwey.

New York is arguably the worlds most photographed and documented city, yet filmmaker Jonathan Levine chose not to flood the screen with typical aerial views of the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, Brooklyn Bridge, Times Square, etc. in his 2008 film ‘The Wackness’. Instead we see it from the ground up; its inhabitants pound the streets speaking of it like a hard-boiled film noir anti-hero. “The city is a lonely place.” – a line that could sound clichéd if it wasn’t so obviously true for the three lead characters, especially the wise-beyond-her-years character Stephanie played by Olivia Thirlby whose popularity and sexual proficiency belie a deep-seeded loneliness and an inability to communicate. The city, we are told, is going through many changes, a fickle mistress who is looking to reform. Ben Kingsley’s pot smoking and jaded psychiatrist Dr. Squires laments this change, longing for the cities heady days of his youth. Yet these days appear to be a fictional nostalgia, his adolescence spent as a confirmed nerd. Thus he sees the films lead Luke Shapiro as his invitation to the missed and oft heard of party. However the roles have changed. Luke makes his living peddling dope out of an ice cream cart, a cover so laughably thin one wonders just how hard Mayor Giuliani – an icon where all hatred is directed – is trying to clean up the city. He wryly labels himself “the most popular of the unpopular” with weed being so common, the ability to deal it has no special status attached. He has been relegated to loser and forever thinks of himself as such. It takes the advice of his unhinged self-medicating psychiatrist and best client to force Luke into action.

“You don’t need medication, you just need to get laid.” Squires delivers with the tone of the world-weary bequeathing a hard-learned truth to an incredulous younger generation. It is a slogan perhaps many within the synthetic drug happy world of 1994 can live by.

The film also evokes a certain nostalgia. Although the world of 1994 seems minutes ago, it is apparent we have changed irreversibly. Luke’s slavish devotion to hip-hop is telling of a scene about to boom right out of its box, still on the cusp of popularity, the phenomenon of rap not saturating the airwaves and televisions until several years later.

The city, like its characters, are in a transitional phase, waiting for something unexpected yet inevitable. Luke waits for his last summer of adolescence until he pushes off to college, Stephanie looking for a distraction before she too decides what to become and perhaps the most potent change of all is Dr. Squires, discovering his marriage is a shambles and his career as a psychiatrist pointless and unfulfilling. As he sits pretending to crush his diplomas with his hands, it is his life personified, his training and hard earned certificates crumbling in on themselves to reveal a shell of a man who uses drug, legal and otherwise, as a crutch.

Being only six years old during the summer of 1994 and having never been to the city of New York, I feel somewhat unqualified to talk about the overall tone of the film and its accurate representation of a city in the midst of a change from old to new, nor is my love of nineties hip-hop profoundly insightful. Nevertheless my enjoyment of the film wasn’t diminished by this lack of understanding and I felt welcomed into this snapshot in time, being able to wholly relate to Luke’s outsider status, wry observations and a general hopelessness in defining what he wants to be. The subtle shift from comedy to tragedy suited my sensibilities with the climax of the film being an attempted suicide by Dr. Squires and an impassioned plea for life by one yet to live his. Luke’s half sobbed-monologue, struggling in the open sea to save his mentor as the picture is sapped of any colour and warmth, the waves a dull grey slapping against his chest, pulling him back to the sand, is genuinely touching. However, as the film looks like it might be heading in a more serious direction, Squires is sloppily reborn from the sea stating matter-of-factly to Luke, “That was really fucking corny what you said.” The fact that Dr. Squires attempts to kill himself three different ways and fails spectacularly each time is perhaps the message the film wishes to leave the audience with, sometimes it’s right to do the wrong thing.