- Rated R
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All photos © Sony Classics Pictures
Reviewed by David Medsker
t’s easy to see why so many people are falling head over heels for “The Wackness.” It’s a movie out of time, in more than one sense; not only is it a throwback to the small but spirited indie films of the mid-‘90s, but the movie actually takes place in the mid-‘90s. Anchored by a star-turning performance by an unknown and a very well-chosen soundtrack, “The Wackness” will be the new favorite movie of any teenager who isn’t quite sure what to do with the rest of his or her life.
It is the summer of 1994, and Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck), a hip-hop-loving drug dealer, has just graduated from high school and has nothing to do but smoke and deal until he attends college in the fall. One of Luke’s regular clients is a shrink named Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley), and soon the men form a relationship where Luke undergoes therapy and pays for it with weed. Things get complicated when Luke begins to fancy Dr. Squires’ stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby). Squires worries for both Luke (he thinks Stephanie is just hanging with him because she’s bored) and Stephanie (Luke is a drug dealer, after all), but Luke is reluctant to listen to Squires because a) he’s in love, and b) Squires’ personal life, which includes a loveless marriage to Stephanie’s mother Kristin (Famke Janssen), is even more screwed up than Luke’s.
One of the most refreshing things about “The Wackness” is that it doesn’t try to be bigger than it really is. One of the things that killed the indie film movement dead was every director’s desire to make the biggest movie they could, usually with bloated casting. “The Wackness,” wisely, avoids this. It has no bankable stars (Kingsley and Janssen are as close as it gets) and the direction is no-nonsense, hand-held simplicity. The only special effects are the graffiti-style title cards that introduce each month of the summer. Though they have next to nothing in common, I was reminded of “Fresh,” a fantastic streets-of-New-York drug dealer drama that was released in…1994. How about that.
The role of Luke is a curious choice for Peck, the former star of Nickelodeon’s “Drake & Josh” (he’s the goody two-shoes), but Peck runs away with the role as if he’s been living the part his whole life. There are times when you can see the gears turning in his head as he’s figuring things out, a trait that most movie teenagers (ahem, Juno MacGuff) rarely exhibit. Dr. Squires is probably more screwed up than the real-life version of him would be, but Kingsley does a good job making him believable, while Janssen spends the whole movie smoking cigarettes and looking angry. Thirlby plays the part of the slightly condescending hottie a little too well, while Mary-Kate Olsen delivers a surprisingly good (and funny) performance as dreadlocked hippie chick Union. The one thing that writer/director Jonathan Levine doesn’t get right is the dialogue. Well, he gets it right – he just doesn’t stick to it. Luke and Stephanie’s street slang speech habits randomly disappear throughout the movie. When they reappear, it’s jarring.
“The Wackness” will provide a monster dose of nostalgia to anyone who longs for the days when Miramax ruled the movie world, while serving as a grand coming-out party for Peck, Levine and, to a lesser extent, Olsen. It’s good to see that there are still people out there who value substance over style and don’t lacquer their movies to a bulletproof sheen. As much as I’ve enjoyed this summer’s superhero extravaganza, this was a welcome change of pace.
Single-Disc DVD Review:
The DVD for "The Wackness" gives you as much as can be expected for a single-disc set. Director Jonathan Levine and star Josh Peck do an audio commentary, there are four deleted scenes (one of which, between Luke Shapiro and his father, is very informative), and a behind-the-scenes featurette with interviews from all major leads and several production people. Levine also opens himself to a day-in-the-life piece on the day of the movie's LA premiere, but the most amusing bonus feature is "Luke's Dope Show," a hilarious parody/tribute to early '90s cable access programming.