According to promotional materials for The Wackness, writer/director Jonathan Levine aimed to tell the story of a watershed era. The film is set in 1994 when Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. were the kings of rap, the drug scene ran rampant and Rudy Giuliani arrived in the New York mayor's office pledging to take the streets back from the gangbangers. I can't see that Levine's really done all that, perhaps because the various references to the music and other cultural artifacts of the time simply escaped me. But in his sophomore feature, the 34-year-old filmmaker has made an effective, character-oriented movie so smart and winning that it captured the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
The Wackness is the story of recent high-school graduate Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck), a taciturn young man who seems to have made it to age 18 without making much of an impact. He's never had a girlfriend and doesn't seem to have any guy friends either. He's smart, though, and Peck does a good job of capturing the way Luke watches carefully and turns things over in his mind, even when he's not showing an external reaction. Luke's problems, we conclude, arise from a troubled home life. His mother (Talia Balsam) vacillates between vacant-eyed depression and rage. His father (David Wohl) is a professional screwup. He's so over-extended financially that he's battling eviction notices on the family's apartment. And though Levine is careful to include scenes establishing that both parents care about their son, it's also apparent that they are so wrapped up in their own problems that they aren't involved with Luke the way they ought to be.
Perhaps as an act of defiance, Luke has become a marijuana dealer with a fairly sizable clientele. He's got regulars like the woebegone Elanor (the always alluringly strange Jane Adams), who insists on relating her latest tale of romantic woe before she forks over her reefer cash. And he's got his street operation, which consists of pretending to sell ice cream while handing off quarter bags in Central Park. Luke's best customer, however, is his psychiatrist, the relentlessly wacked out Jeffrey Squires (Ben Kingsley). Jeffrey seems to have channeled Robin Williams' carpe diem counsel from Good Will Hunting, since his repetitive advice to Luke is to have fun, get laid and don't Bogart that joint.
In narrative structure, The Wackness is the story of two intertwined and troubled relationships: Luke's with Jeffrey's stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby) and, ultimately more important, Luke's with Jeffrey himself. The more traditional romantic tale is one between a boy who tries to conceal his inexperience behind a mask of aloofness and a girl who has done everything but dare to surrender herself to real emotion. In the hands of a lesser storyteller, Stephanie would be depicted as a two-dimensional selfish bitch. But she emerges as considerably more complicated than that, her sins more those of immaturity than ultimate character deficiency. At moments when she could be truly cruel to Luke and justify herself for being so, she's the opposite: kind, caring and encouraging.
The defining relationship in the film, though, is that between shrink and patient. Jeffrey is irresponsible in ever so many ways. But he correctly sees himself as an aged version of Luke, and he genuinely wants to save the young man from growing up to be as unfinished and dissatisfied with life as he is. Jeffrey's mission to save Luke takes many hilarious turns and develops a structure akin to the classic romantic formula: man helps boy, man hates boy, boy helps man. Without ever being quite convincing, Jeffrey completely wins us over. We root for him even as we want to give him a well-deserved thrashing.
Levine's script never develops adequate employment for the capable Famke Janssen, who appears as Jeffrey's wife Kristin. She's either bored or stoned or both, but she never has a graspable dimension. I didn't unravel what Levine was up to with certain visual flourishes where photos come alive and night streets light up like a 1970s disco floor. The ice-cream cart seemed to me a scam that had no chance of working. And I never could figure out how a kid with the daring to deal drugs could be such a bust at asking for a date. But those complaints aside, I liked The Wackness a bunch, and I wholly understand why Sundance audiences gave it a standing ovation. Pictures like this seldom garner them, but Ben Kingsley entirely deserves an Oscar nomination for his work here.
- 2008 Sony Classics
- Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley) counsels his dope dealer Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) in The Wackness.