Movie Review: The Wackness
By Matthew Huntley
July 18, 2008
The summer between the last year of high school and the first year of college can be a tricky one. Kids go from thinking they know everything to accepting they've still got lots to learn...about everything. Money, sex, parents, love - it can all get a little "wacky."
The Wackness takes place during one of those summers - 1994 to be exact - when Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) is taught lessons about sex, friendship, loyalty and "how to deal." Luke is a young man who listens to hip hop and walks around with just a smidge of arrogance, but the truth of the matter is he's lonely. He doesn't have any friends and the only reason he'd ever find himself at one of his classmate's graduation parties is because he's a well-known pot dealer. He's the guy who supplies "the goods" for the party but who's never asked to stay and enjoy them.
Luke is sort of a professional in his field, cool and relatively inconspicuous. Around the East Side of Manhattan he pushes a cart that says "Fresh & Delicious Ices," which he uses to sell pot to a regular brand of clientele, though the movie never tells us what Luke does if somebody actually wants fresh and delicious ice.
One of Luke's best clients is a hippie-looking psychiatrist named Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley), who compensates Luke with therapy sessions instead of money. Deep down, Squires is a sad and lonely man himself. He's married to a depressed and cynical woman (Famke Janssen), who forever puffs on cigarettes but still feels the need to do aerobics, and takes anti-depressants of his own. Squires also has a spunky step-daughter named Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), whom Luke always knew in high school but is just now developing feelings for, probably because she's actually taking the time to talk him.
The movie's main relationship is the odd and endearing one between Luke and Dr. Squires. The two share adventures together like spray painting on public property, getting arrested, making out with young girls (Mary-Kate Olsen), and experimenting with stronger drugs. Eventually, they even go into business together. A funny moment finds Luke bringing Squires to meet his supplier (Method Man).
Underneath the preposterousness of some of these scenes, we believe Luke and Squires people would really be friends. In fact, one of the things about The Wackness that draws us in, and keeps us in, is the way writer-director Jonathan Levine and actor Josh Peck make Luke both interesting and admirable. Luke knows how to talk to people and I believed he could really exist (Levine must have been writing about someone specific when he wrote the character). Peck plays Luke so that we never think of him as a stock movie type. He's not annoying, either, but humble and it was nice to see a teenager character care for the people around him, including his mother (Talia Balsam) and father (David Wohl), who face eviction from their apartment. Believe it or not, teenagers really do love and learn from their parents.
Levine's dialogue also feels genuine, which comes as a surprise since Luke and Stephanie say words like "a'ight," "peace" and "word." But they're not meant to be mocking or funny. With a coming-of-age story as this, it would be easy for Levine to go for cheap effects and gimmicks, perhaps throw tragic or satirical elements at us, but he avoids predictability and his story works because we believe these people are real - real enough in their world anyway.
In the movie's best sequence, Luke and Stephanie take a trip to her house in the Hamptons. At the same time, Dr. Squires and his wife vacation in the Caribbean. Levine juxtaposes the young characters with the old ones, perhaps as a way to show that some of life's problems, especially with regards to sex and love, aren't limited to a certain age. Each couples' scenes end on interesting notes and each character learns something amazing, if heartbreaking. Levine also handles Josh's virginity in a way that's fresh and believable. He treats the situation as matter of fact and as a learning experience, which is better than turning it into a punch line.
I wouldn't go so far as to call The Wackness a great film, or even a special one, but it did hold my interest and I enjoyed the company of the characters and the performances. The movie sometimes borders on thinking it's more important than it really is (especially towards the end on the beach), and it's not incredibly original or profound since we've seen better coming of age tales before, but it's smart, entertaining and unaffected. Relative newcomers Levine, Peck and Thirlby are talents that should be watched for in the future. They're people you'd like to see in an even better film, even though this is a good one.