Director: Jonathan Levine
Screenwriter: Jonathan Levine
Producers: Joe Neurauter, Keith Calder, Felipe Marino
Cast: Josh Peck, Ben Kingsley, Famke Janssen, Olivia Thirlby
U.S.A., 2007, 110 min.
*In the sweltering summer of 1994, Rudy Giuliani is scouring New York City within an inch of its life, hip-hop is permeating white youth culture, and a pot-dealing loser kid, Luke Shapiro, is trying to figure out how to solve his parents’ insolvency, beat depression, and get laid before pushing off to college. Luckily he’s got a nifty deal with a psychiatrist, Dr. Squires, who trades him therapy sessions for weed. It happens that the oddball doctor’s marriage is crumbling, so the two—one in late adolescence, the other in late middle-age—embark on messy passages into new life stages. As Luke falls for a classmate who just happens to be Squires’s daughter, the summer heats up, and he follows doctor’s orders, learning to coexist with pain and make it part of him, rather than let it become his downfall.
The Wackness plays like the luscious rush of first love, discovering great new music, meeting amazing personalities who impart the meaning of life, and realizing what you’re made of. Perfectly capturing the textures of 1990s Manhattan and the zeitgeist of worldly, yet emotionally unformed, private-school students forced to parent their parents, director Jonathan Levine conveys a whimsy, too—buoyed by the dazzlingly funny Ben Kingsley and unexpected stylistic flourishes—that gives the film’s insights and idiosyncrasies big, glorious, flapping wings.
*Summary by Caroline Libresco, SUNDANCE Film Programmer
The Wackness is a fun and irreverent look at first love in that strange period in our culture, the early 1990s. The story itself is pretty pedestrian and the time setting sometimes feels like more of a device to set scenes to dated 90s music, but the performances by the two leads really holds this film up. And damn if it wasn’t fun listening to that old music, and seeing beepers and pump sneakers on screen. I could have done with a lot less of Ben Kingsley’s mid-life crisis therapist, Dr. Squires. He is most effective in his quieter therapy scenes; his crazier, over-the-top mannerisms seemed to exist solely for shock value. Look! Ben Kingsley smoking a bong! Hilarious! Ben Kingsley making out with an Olsen twin! Outrageous! It began to feel like the filmmakers were trying to create publicity rather than a consistent character. Though yes, I did think that Ben Kingsley nonchalantly throwing water balloons out the window of his high-rise apartment was absurdly funny. In fact, that’s all I am going to talk about his character, he just really did not work for me. But I really like his more meaningful moments with the lead, Josh Peck.
Now this kid, Josh Peck, playing ‘Luke Shapiro’, is the star of one of those smarmy and cute Nickelodeon shows, which is really hard to believe after watching this performance. He peddles drugs around New York out of an ice cream cart and talks like poser thug. Luke curses constantly and is obsessed with women. He reminds me of guys I went to high school with, a mixture of calculated indifference and massive insecurities. I love his line to the lead girl, Stephanie, as they are about to have sex for the first time. Luke shyly admits that he has never had sex before. Stephanie scoffs and derisively asks, “So you’re a virgin?!” Luke defensively blurts out, “No!” A great moment highlighting the precarious line a teenage boy walks between sensitivity and machismo. Olivia Thirlby, who plays ‘Stephanie’, is a gorgeous young actress most familiar to audiences as Juno’s best friend and the voice to that god-awful line, “Honest to blog.” She was also one of the best things about last year’s Sundance film, Snow Angels, as a shy and mousy high schooler. In Wackness, her character is Ben Kingsley’s daughter. Stephanie is the perfect example of that sarcastic, attractive, fully independent and unobtainable high school girl that boys fear as much as they desire. It is hard to tell when she is actually being sincere or just bored. When real emotions enter the relationship between Luke and Stephanie, he can never be sure how much she cares and how much is a desire to pass the time with sex. Thirlby really nails Stephanie, giving her shades and motivations, not satisfied to portray her simply as Luke’s mystery girl on a pedestal. The look on her face when her parents pause before they assure her that they love her tells us everything we need to know about Stephanie’s fear of commitment.
I wish the filmmakers had played more with the fantasy elements of the film. For example, the film begins with Luke on the subway imagining the girls on the train becoming dancers in a typical 90s era rap video. It is an instant time warp back to the days of Tupac, Biggie, Sir MixaLot and Kriss Kross. There is also a great fantasy moment later in the film when Luke and Stephanie first hook up. Luke dances in the street to a Biggie song, the cement beneath his feet becoming colorfully lighted squares in response to his moves. It is a whimsical, almost classic, moment heightened by a modern song that every Midwestern white boy, myself included, had memorized in the early 90s. I understand why these fantasy elements were not used often, but I wouldn’t have minded seeing a few more of them.
As I mentioned, the movie relies on the budding relationship between Luke and Stephanie to make an audience connection, and it succeeds. There are many wonderful scenes between them, playing on their mutual attraction, their boredom, and what they consider to be ‘flirting’. One scene in Central Park is really well filmed, showing Stephanie in some kind of semi-profile, only her eye, mouth, and her cigarette smoke in the frame. It represents how Luke is taking in this awesome female vision: piece by piece. The entire beach house sequence, where Luke and Stephanie finally consummate their flirtation, is tender and awkward. It seems to be going well until Luke makes the ultimate male faux-pas, confessing to Stephanie that he loves her in the midst of a sunset tryst in an outdoor beach shower. The audience can see this coming and I felt like shouting at Luke to keep his mouth shut. There is no faster way to send a girl like that running for the hills. Luke’s attempts to win her back are sadly hilarious, especially his phone message to Stephanie that starts off as a tender apology, but quickly turns into a rage-filled monologue. I also liked their final scene together, when Luke says good-bye to Stephanie. By the end, he is almost proud to have been dumped by a girl of her quality and hotness. I liked the idea that Luke needed that summer heartache/first love pain to move on to the next stage of his life. Very sweet.The film has a gritty, desaturated look which works for a pre-Giuliani New York. Recently, I have seen trailers for this film on TV, and I must say, they are awful, and in no way represent the joys this film has to offer. They make no sense of the plot or the ideas in the film. Seriously, I would never see The Wackness based on that craptastic trailer. I do hope that error is fixed, because this film is a fun ride through the eyes of a lost boy convinced he is in love with a tease, walking the streets of an younger New York.