Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Getting with the Wackness

I’ve often found the best films, the one’s that touch us the most are surprises, the one’s you don’t see coming. I went to The Wackness, writer/director Jonathan Levine’s opus to the New York summer of 1994 aware of the decidedly mixed reviews that had accompanied it’s quiet release into theaters at the start of July. Its only noted champion had been CHUD.com’s Devin Faraci and once again I find myself inclined to agree with the bearded NY to LA transplant.

The Wackness almost shouldn’t work. At times it walks a very narrow line between conveying an authentic look for the “period” and bashing its audience over the head screaming “Look! Look! The 90’s!” But beyond getting the milieu right its getting the feeling of desperation and frustration shared by both young and old. It is these feelings that bind Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) and Dr. Squires (Sir Ben Kingsley, making up for much of his lackluster work of the past decade). Luke’s life is in free-fall, he makes a decent living selling pot (he’s trading dime bags for sessions with the doctor) but he is fresh out of high school largely directionless and his parents are turning on each other due to economic troubles. Luke speaks in a wigger patois but somehow manages to come off not as obnoxious but just as a matter of fact part of his persona. You don’t get a sense of Malibu’s Most Wanted, it just feels like a natural-outgrowth of his environment. Peck is a real find as Luke and came as a real find since I don’t watch the kids series Drake and Josh on which he stars. He conveys Luke’s physicality, feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders at one moment as he sells to keep his family in their apartment or as he fumbles child-like through his first sexual encounter.
Squires meanwhile feels trapped in his own life. He is unable to connect with his wife (a distant but wonderfully subtle Famke Jansen) or his stepdaughter, Stephanie (Juno’s Olivia Thirlby ably stepping into the spotlight) and needs to Luke to feel like he did when he was young. To him Luke is a gateway to a world of young women, tagging, drugs and alcohol. Luke wants Squires for emotional validation and to help him find a sense of responsibility and belonging. The fact that these two are working at cross –purposes with each other really livens up their dynamic. They can call each other on their mutual bull-shit while at the same time open each other up to new worlds. Under Squires advice Luke seeks out a girl “to get laid” but falls for the one girl he really ought not to get involved with, Stephanie. Director Levine and Thirlby do a fine job in making Stephanie likable enough that we can see why Luke likes her and at the same time make us see why this particular relationship will end in heartbreak for our boy. There is a damn near perfect sequence set out on Long Island where Luke thinks he’s found his true love but the truth is a bit more complex than that. It’s a testament to both actors and Levin that the scene doesn’t come off as schmaltzy but genuinely evokes a sort of universal nostalgia.
Before I go any further let me say that this movie isn’t just a wistful walk down memory lane, it’s funny, honest to goodness filled with gut-busting moments. This in large part due to Kingsley of all people. His attempts at throwing off the shackles of his bourgeoisie comfort results in some real audience pleasing moments and lines. It’s a real pleasure to watch the character. Another pleasant surprise? Between this and his work in the Wire, the Wu-tang Clan’s Method Man is turning into a damn reliable character actor. In this film he plays a Jamican drug dealer who supplies Luke and provides him with his first Biggie Smalls CD, a fairly large rite of passage for any young man growing up in the early nineties.

I wouldn’t go o far as to call the Wackness the Juno of 2008, frankly that’s a label that would be reductive to both films, but I do think both films play to similar crowds. Both films are well-made, sharply scripted, directed and acted affairs who make for a nice palate cleanser in light of the gregarious entertainments that have popped up around them. As we head into the last days of summer don’t you think you’ve earned a change of pace in your theater going?

No comments: