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“I got mad love for you, shorty. That’s on the real.” — Josh Reviews The Wackness

May 13th, 2009
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I saw this terrific movie on DVD last month, during the same week that I saw the lovely new film Adventureland (read my full review here), and although the settings are extremely different, I was struck by the similarities between the two films.  Both are “period pieces” set a few years back, and both tell coming-of-age stories, set over the course of a particularly transformative summer.

The Wackness takes place in New York City during the summer of 1994.  Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) has just graduated high school and is spending the summer hanging around the city and making money selling pot.  When we first meet him he’s in the office of Dr. Jeffrey Squires (Ben Kingsley), who is Luke’s psychiatrist and also one of his best clients.  At a post-graduation party, Luke reconnects with Dr. Squires’ daughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), one of his class-mates but someone with whom he has had little interaction (because, as Luke puts it later in the film, she is “mad out of [his] league”).  

The hip-hop music and lingo of 1994 are an enormous part of the film, something which writer/director Jonathan Levine has recreated with great care.  I can’t vouch for his accuracy, but the music and the unique, specific “street-talk” really give the film a vibrant pulse and a distinct feel.

Over the course of the summer, Lucas has to grow up in many ways — he is faced with the ups and downs of his first real relationship and his exposure to the failings and imperfections of the adults around him.  Dr. Squires goes through similar emotional turmoil.  He sees in Luke many of the opportunities that he feels he has missed in life, and he has to face up to the sad, empty shell that his marriage (to his wife Kristen, played quietly by Famke Janssen) has become.  That description of a troubled adult and a troubled youth learning from one another and changing for the better sounds terribly cliche (I’ve seen Good Will Hunting and a hundred similar movies, as I’m sure have you), but The Wackness manages to deftly steer clear of predictable developments and movie-happy “I’ve grown and learned a lesson” endings.  It is also surprisingly funny.

Credit goes not only to writer/director Levine but also to his terrific cast.  Josh Peck is quite compelling as Luke Shapiro.  He makes the role his own, bringing life to Luke and embodying him with specific quirks and characteristics that make him a pretty unique movie young-adult lead.  Sir Ben Kingsley, under a terrifically ridiculous mop of hair, is similarly magnificent as the bizarre Dr. Squires.  His friendship with Luke is the beating heart of the film, and the two actors sell it brilliantly.  I also found Olivia Thirlby (who really shone in her supporting role in Juno) to be fantastic as the alluring object of Luke’s affection.  The subtlety of her performance brings a lot of complexities to a role that could easily have been very one-dimensional.  The film also boasts terrific performances from the rest of the cast, including Method Man (Cheese from The Wire) as Luke’s Jamaican drug-connection, Percy; Jane Adams (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) as one of Luke’s clients, Eleanor; and (hard as this may be to believe) Mary-Kate Olsen, perfectly cast as a ditzy hippy who, in one of the film’s most eye-raising scenes, briefly gets it on with Kingsley’s Dr. Squires.  

The Wackness is a fascinating, funny, emotional film with a unique feel all its own.  Check it out.  I can’t wait to see it again.

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