Too “Wack” to Be Moving
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
“I see the dopeness in everything, and you just see the wackness.”
— Stephanie Squires (Olivia Thirlby) to Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) in The Wackness, written and directed by Jonathan Levine
The promotional material for Jonathan Levine’s new film The Wackness certainly talks a good movie. “It’s the summer of 1994, and the streets of New York are pulsing with hip-hop and wafting with the sweet aroma of marijuana — but change is in the air,” it reads. “The newly inaugurated mayor, Rudy Giuliani, is beginning to implement his anti-fun initiatives against ‘crimes’ like noisy portable radios, graffiti and public drunkenness. Set against this backdrop, Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) spends his last summer before college selling dope throughout New York City, trading it with his shrink (Ben Kingsley) for
therapy, while crushing on his stepdaughter (Olivia Thirlby).”
But anybody lured to a theatre showing The Wackness by this copy, and expecting a light-hearted anti-establishment comedy about a picaresque teen drug dealer eluding the minions of the New York Police Department while trying to make enough money to last him through four years of college is going to be sorely disappointed. What Levine has actually given us is an all-too-familiar modern coming-of-age tale, filled with plot devices that have been done better in other recent films (like the teenage male sexual naïf from Tadpole and the crazy psychiatrist from Running with Scissors). It’s filmed by cinematographer Petra Korner in so exaggerated a version of the past-is-brown cliché that great swaths of it look like they were shot in black-and-white and then sepia-toned, and the coldness of the movie’s approach to the character’s emotions all too faithfully matches the film’s murky visual look. (When Luke and his crush object meet in a park on their first date, we get a visceral feeling of relief that the foliage is recognizably green.)
The movie’s big gimmick is that Luke is in therapy with Dr. Jeffrey Squires (Kingsley) while at the same time dealing him drugs and paying for his sessions with bags of marijuana. (The fact that Luke deals pot exclusively is supposed to make him a “good” drug dealer, as opposed to those nasty ones selling heroin, crystal, cocaine or crack.) Dr. Squires sees Luke as the vehicle through which he can relive his lost youth — at one point he takes him to what used to be a trendy singles’ bar but now is virtually dead — and together they do drugs, seek partners for casual sex, exchange the sorts of ruminations on the human condition that sound impressive when you’re stoned and are forgotten by the time you sober up and end up in one, count ’em, one altercation with the law — when Luke challenges Dr. Squire to “tag” and he responds by signing his own name to a street window as his sort of graffiti.
At the same time, however, Dr. Squires is also fiercely protective of his stepdaughter Stephanie (Thirlby) and determined to nip any hint of a romantic interest between her and Luke in the bud. At times we’re led to believe that Squires has an incestuous crush, conscious or otherwise, on Stephanie; at other times we think maybe he’s got a Gay itch for Luke. Either of these would have been a more interesting dramatic issue than the one Levine supplies, having Squires’ wife Kristin (Famke Janssen) leave him and he respond by taking Luke to his beach house on Fire Island and treating him to a weekend-long drug binge.
It’s a pity that Levine wastes a quite good cast on such a dull story, made even more boring by the plodding pace of his direction. (If you go in thinking that Levine is going to cut his movie to the rapid-fire, jagged rhythms of the hip-hop songs Luke loves, that’s yet another expectation the actual film will dash.) Josh Peck is just right as Luke, cute without being so attractive that we couldn’t believe he’s made it to his high-school graduation with his virginity still intact. Thirlby is suitably enigmatic as Stephanie, waving off Luke’s protestations of his lack of sexual experience with a breezily insouciant insistence that she’s done it 100 times, and coldly dumping Luke when he makes the mistake of telling her that he loves her. (You’ve heard of romantic movies? This is definitely an anti-romantic movie.) At least she looks enough like Famke Janssen (herself effective within the limits of an underwritten role that has too little screen time to leave much of an impression) that we can accept them as mother and daughter, a rarity in any movie.
Not surprisingly, though, the film’s best moments go to top-billed Ben Kingsley, who seems to have taken this role as part of his life-long crusade to get audiences to accept him as anything other than the goody-two-shoes roles that made him a star, Gandhi and the saintly Jewish bookkeeper in Schindler’s List. Whether he’s having a sexual quickie in a phone booth with a dirty-blonde girl young enough to be his granddaughter or getting himself and Luke caught by “tagging” a city street with his own signature, Kingsley does his level best to make us understand the weirdo he’s playing. Much of his performance evokes his turn in another recent film, You Kill Me, as an alcoholic hit-man whose employers ship him from Boston to San Francisco to go through the 12-step program and return a more effective killer — but that’s a much better movie than this one; not only is it photographed in a color scheme that actually resembles reality, but at least Kingsley’s character in You Kill Me shows some real development and actually sobers up.
As The Wackness plods along through its all too predictable situations, Levine’s snail-like direction gives us all too much time to contemplate the anachronisms and dramatic holes in his script. Why does Luke make a joke about Starbucks when that chain, though it existed in 1994, was hardly as numbingly ubiquitous as it is now? Why does he say, “I still listen to cassettes!,” when a lot of people still listened to cassettes in 1994? (It wasn’t until later in that decade that CD’s took over from all other media of recorded music, only to fall in turn to Internet downloads in our time.) Why does Luke listen almost exclusively to rap when in 1994 rap was still pretty much the province of Black gang-bangers and white wanna-bes, and Luke is clearly neither? Why, when we’re clearly told over and over again that Stephanie is only Dr. Squires’ stepdaughter, does she have the same last name? And why, when Luke has the last name “Shapiro,” do he and his movie parents (David Wohl and Talia Balsam) talk with the accents of Italian-American gangsters in a film by Coppola or Scorsese or a Sopranos episode?
But the worst thing about The Wackness is its utter coldness as a film, its total refusal to give us even one character we can actually like. Levine seems more like an anthropologist than a storyteller, raising us above the characters and having us “observe” them like lab rats instead of feeling for them. The film presents drugs as merely a fact of life, neither a vehicle for liberation nor a force that destroys the lives of their users — and whereas the sobriety Kingsley’s You Kill Me character achieves gives us a reason to like and support him, the utter refusal of his character here to clean up his act or even start acting his age makes us wonder how much more screwed up his therapy clients are going to be once he gets through with them. (At the same time Levine shows us Squires’ patients only in a series of silent close-ups from the most unflattering angles he and cinematographer Korner can come up with, making sure we don’t identify with them either.) It’s a measure of how chilly this movie is towards its people that the biggest emotional wrench in the film doesn’t involve a human being; it’s a shot of the Manhattan skyline with the two World Trade Center towers still in place.