Monday, July 28, 2008

Review: "The Wackness"

"I see the dopeness in everything, and you just see the wackness."

It is usually considered a great honor for an actor of the stage to be given the play's title in a line of dialogue. But generally when it comes to film, shoe-horning the title into the script can come off as a bit...awkward.

I'll admit I cringed a little bit when Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby) looks at Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck), and utters those words, because it conveys a certain unassuredness of a film that isn't quite sure what to do with itself.

Thankfully, The Wackness recovers more often than not from its "pay attention this is important" title-dropping, but never quite to the level that I think it aspires to.

Set in 1994 against the backdrop of sweeping cultural changes in New York City implemented by newly elected mayor Rudy Giuliani, The Wackness is the story of a newly graduated drug dealer (Peck) who is just trying to navigate the tricky waters of the transition to adulthood in his last summer before college. Helping him along the way is his eccentric, pot smoking psychiatrist (Ben Kingsley, in a wonderful performance), whose stepdaughter (Thirlby) is the object of Luke's affections.

The film deals with issues that will be readily accessible and identifiable to most viewers. Luke is an outcast - a scruffy loner who is viewed by his "friends" as useful only as a supplier of weed, and little else. That is until Stephanie enters the picture, giving Luke his first taste of love, sex, and the thrill of a summer fling.

However, the film tries to position itself as a cultural time capsule, looking back with misty eyed nostalgia at a time that really wasn't all that long ago. And this is where The Wackness stumbles. Outside of as many references to Giuliani as the filmmakers can cram in, and a few laments about the lack of readily available drugs, the film fails to fully examine the effects and wider ramifications of the Republican mayor's now legendary reforms. I wanted there to be more to it, historically speaking, than a simple "where have all the drugs gone?" theme.

The real point here, of course, isn't so much the drugs, it's actually a pretty standard coming-of-age tale about a boy's last summer of childhood. The cultural backdrop of rap and marijuana is what is supposed to give it it's personality, but that didn't interest me so much as Ben Kingsley's delightful performance. He brings vulnerability and emotional shading to a character who could have easily been turned into comic cliché, played strictly for laughs. Instead, he breathes a soul into his character and turns him into a living, breathing person, with hopes and dreams all his own, a free stuck in a never-ending cycle from which there is no escape. There is a poignancy to Kingsley's performance that bleeds into the film around him, giving it a sense of quirky melancholy. His work here is the highlight of the film, and it's one of the finest acting jobs of the year so far.

The rest of the movie doesn't always seem to know what to do with itself or what it's trying to be, but it ends up working for what it is, even if what it is doesn't always seem to be what it wants.

GRADE - **½ (out of four)

THE WACKNESS; Directed by Jonathan Levine; Stars Ben Kingsley, Josh Peck, Olivia Thirlby, Famke Janssen, Mary-Kate Olsen, Method Man; Rated R for pervasive drug use, language and some sexuality.

4 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

Very fine treatment here of a film that I have avoided for two reasons: generally medicore review, and too much to see. But you do point out the positive aspects too. Fair enough.

nick plowman said...

I still cannot wait to see this, lol!

I'm sure it ain't amazing, but I'm interested indeed.

Daniel G. said...

Great review here, Matthew, as you highlight the best and lowlight the worst. I also cringed at the notable line.

I have to say, this movie didn't make as much of a splash as I thought it would. I figured people would eat it up despite our middling reviews, but it doesn't appear to be carrying very well.

Matthew Lucas said...

Sam: Thanks! It isn't bad, but definitely not worth going out of your way for. I just don't understand all the hype coming out of Sundance...the rest of the lineup must have been really weak.

Nick: I hope you enjoy it, you still may. It just didn't fully work for me.

Daniel: I don't know if its appeal is as broad as, say, THE PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, but it still hasn't gone wide yet so it still may catch on.