January 6, 2009
Reviewer: Craig Phillips
Rating (out of 5): ***
With his second feature, Jonathan Levine, New York native and once an assistant to writer-director Paul Schrader, captures his home town's vibe expertly in the uneven but ultimately winning little coming of age dramedy The Wackness. The film takes a bit of time to find its stride - but it does when Levine lets go of some of his filmic pretenses and lets the characters take hold.
Josh Peck, continuing his graduation from teen TV star to respected actor, is wholly believable and empathetic as Luke, a sad sack who has always felt a bit out of his peers' social circles. His parents are fracturing and on the brink of bankruptcy, so to earn some extra green he sells, well, green weed (hidden in an ice cream cart), and even trades some of it to a therapist in exchange for counseling sessions. These scenes will not remind anyone of Ordinary People.
As the sad sack psychotherapist Dr Squires, Sir Ben Kingsley exists in another dimension here, channeling Harvey Keitel (he even seems to reference him physically, replete with one-size-too-small bowler hat, scraggly hair and goatee), toking from a humungous bong, but there's something more to his part here. Squires is married to Kristin (Famke Janssen) and their relationship, too, is on the rocks. Even if there's a certain inevitability to a therapist's dysfunctional private life, Janssen and Kingsley bring a great deal of pathos to their scenes together, ultimately to heartbreaking effect.
Luke falls for Squires' stepdaughter (Olivia Thirlby) and seems out of his league with her but pursues her anyway. Their budding relationship forms the film's main, thin plot line and is well-captured by Levine and the young actors, realistic - culminating with an appropriately uncomfortable sex scene. (And in possibly the film's most disturbing bit of casting, Mary-Kate Olsen, turning her glamour girl image on its head, plays a drugged out deadhead (!) girl who flirts with Luke but ends up making out with Dr Squires in a sleazy scene that makes me feel the need for a cold shower just to write about it - don't worry, things don't get that far.)
I found myself rewriting some of the dialogue as the lines were being uttered, although there are a few great ones, too, including the one that gives the film its title. And the pacing wobbles around, with scenes that drift as aimlessly as its protagonist.
But what the film does right is capture the feel of New York and the mid-90s vibe - the music, full of that era's hip hop, the lingo, even down to the way that period ushered in our increasing dependence on prescription psychotherapeutic drugs - much more so than its contrived attempts to weave in Mayor Giuliani references. (I'm not against some good ol' Rudy-bashing, but here the insertions feel false.) Still, both the young leads, Peck and Thirlby, each native New Yorkers, fit into this world with the utmost ease and believability. The resolution to their relationship may be predictable, but it's the right one - it's something we've all been through. And Levine does well in creating an empathetic young male character who isn't all bravado; underneath he wears his heart on his sleeve. The film shows how emotionally raw a person feels after that first sexual experience, becoming attached beyond all rationality to that partner.
With a game cast and some mad cool songs from the era, some heartfelt moments battling clumsy ones, The Wackness isn't quite dope but, like a good mixtape, it is full of highlights. Peace out, y'all.
Posted by cphillips at January 6, 2009 1:48 PM