Wackness, The (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Wackness, The Poster

The Wackness is a period piece drama that takes viewers back to the summer of 1994 in New York City. It's three months in the life of a drug dealer as he traverses the road from high school graduation to the start of college. This is basically a coming-of-age story with the narrative concentrating almost exclusively on the boy's friendship with his aging hippy psychiatrist and his flirtation with the shrink's step-daughter. Movies about drug dealers are often dark and, while The Wackness is shot using techniques that desaturate color, this is as much a black comedy as it is a drama, and there's no hint of the violence that often permeates films about drugs.

Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) is not the most popular guy in school but his vocation has made him an important person to know. Luke has discovered that selling weed beats flipping burgers, and his clean-cut good looks make him the perfect dealer. Even in an environment in which cops are doing their best to sweep the streets of anything and everything illegal, Luke is able to continue pushing around his ice cream wagon full of contraband. When it comes to kids his own age, Luke is friendless. His best buddy is his shrink, Dr. Jeff Squires (Ben Kingsley), who offers Luke therapy in exchange for pot. The doctor's life lessons often sound like passages out of new age self-help manuals, and his key teaching is that Luke needs to get laid. Dr. Squires advises Luke to find a girl, get to know her, then give her a kiss she'll never forget. Luke takes this message to heart and hones in on his secret crush: Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), who just happens to be Dr. Squires' step-daughter.

Calling a movie set in 1994 a "period piece" may seem odd, but watching The Wackness emphasizes how much things have shifted in less than 15 years. It's not so much that fashions and music have changed (they have) but that technology (cell phones in particular) was a few steps behind where it is today. The two main characters in The Wackness - one a doctor and the other a drug dealer - use pagers. Back in the dark ages, that's how people were contacted in an emergency. There's also a simple shot of Luke gazing at the skyline of lower Manhattan that captures the attention. Before September 2001, a shot of the World Trade Center was almost obligatory in any New York-based. Now, it's surprising.

Of the film's important relationships, the one between Luke and Stephanie works the best. This is grounded in reality. It's an accurate depiction of something many adolescents experience: the summer fling. The Wackness devotes about a third of its running time to exploring how these characters relate to each other over the course of their summer vacation and the way things end is believable. Luke's offbeat friendship with Dr. Squires isn't presented quite as successfully because the psychiatrist is so much larger than life. There's a surreal quality to many of the scenes featuring Dr. Squires and Luke, whether these involve therapy sessions in the doctor's office or having a few beers in a bar that time forgot.

The film takes a different tactic than the average movie about a drug dealer in that it treats Luke as a normal sort of loser whose vocation is neither pernicious nor dangerous. He's not armed and doesn't need to be. His clients are high school kids, a flighty blonde named Union (Mary-Kate Olsen), an ex musician (Jane Adams), and assorted other non-threatening types. Admittedly, the concept of a drug dealer on the streets of New York who doesn't need protection strains credulity, but director Jonathan Levine (All the Boys Love Mandy Lane) finds the right balance between reality and fantasy in The Wackness' little corner of the world. He also provides some moments of visual poetry. The night swimming scene with Luke and Stephanie is beautifully photographed and, because of the low light, appears almost black-and-white.

Josh Peck is an unassuming actor and his approach to the role is low-key. The style works but it often results in him having an unimposing screen presence, especially when paired with Kingsley. Sir Ben relishes the opportunity to create a forceful, flamboyant personality. Once viewed as an actor who steered clear of all but the most pretentious roles, Kingsley has graduated into the mainstream over the past decade by agreeing to appear in almost anything - good, bad, or indifferent - regardless of how it fits with his image. In The Wackness, by avoiding the pitfall of scenery-chewing, he imbues his character with a humanity that is rare for such an ostentatious screen persona. As Stephanie, Olivia Thirlby is delightful, showing she has more to offer than her limited contribution to Juno as the lead character's best friend. Famke Janssen has a small part as Dr. Squires' wife and the aforementioned Mary-Kate Olsen acquits herself admirably as the film's resident flibbertigibbet. Although Peck has the most screen time, The Wackness belongs to Kingsley. It's almost enough to make one forgive The Love Guru. Almost.

Not everything in The Wackness works and there are times when the divergent serious/comedic tones clash instead of complementing each other. However, in spite of its flaws, the production gets us to care about the characters and their situations. This is a movie without villains, but not without dramatic conflict and an off-kilter sense of humor. It won the Audience Award at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, but don't let that be a source of dissuasion. It's actually a pretty good movie.

Wackness, The (United States, 2008)

Director: Jonathan Levine
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Josh Peck, Famke Janssen, Olivia Thirlby, Mary-Kate Olsen, Jane Adams
Screenplay: Jonathan Levine
Cinematography: Petra Korner
Music: David Tom
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2008-07-03
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Drugs, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1