I didn’t really, truly, madly, deeply have my heart broken until I was almost 25 years old. Sure, I’d had plenty of relationships on and off in high school and college, but I never let anyone get deep into my heart serious until then. Upon her unceremonious departure from my affections, she took a sufficient portion of my heart and most of my trust of the fairer sex. Among her many infidelities was a wayward vagina and frequent, underhanded herbal adventures. When we first got together, I knew she was a habitual toker, but she told me she no longer partook because being with me gave her everything she got from smoking. Needless to say, after our parting, I developed an unrelenting grudge against the ganja.
I mention this because I want to give you my mindset going into The Wackness. I assumed it was going to be another “weed comedy,” some sort of half-baked special blend of minority chuckleheads (the Harold & Kumar and Cheech & Chong flicks) with precious indie coming-of-age (Rocket Science, Juno, Garden State). That seemed like the trend lately. Filmmakers have their characters spout any generic platitude they want, as long as they were listening to classic rock and holding a lighter to a bong. Then true love abounds, everything ends happily ever after, and the Socs get what’s coming to them to the tune of The Psychedelic Furs. Because that’s exactly what high school was like.
Imagine my incredibly pleasant surprise upon watching The Wackness, a spectacularly smart film from writer-director Jonathan Levine. Not only is this one of the finest acted films I’ve seen in a long time, but it doesn’t take an easy path in the telling. In fact, it’s a pretty unpleasant tale told with a spirit of honesty and sense of humor that Levine’s more experienced contemporaries cannot come close to approximating. In this film, life isn’t fair, we don’t get what we want, and things can end happily without a pink bow and a funky dance number. At its simplest, it is a coming-of-age story, not just about a young man in the summer after his high school graduation but of a grown man in the middle of the collapsing life he shoddily constructed for himself.
It’s New York City, the summer of 1994. Kurt Cobain had been depressing teenagers a continent away with three chord guitar riffs and just struck the final note with a Hemingway flourish. But this story doesn’t concern itself with Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, but with the emergence of Notorious B.I.G. and A Tribe Called Quest. Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) deals pot from a frozen ice cart under the watchful eye of Rudy Giuliani’s goon squads and their attempts to clean up the streets. He’s the hook-up for most of the popular party kids, but not a part of their social circle. He trades weed for wisdom from his psychiatrist, Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley), a man just as adrift in life as his young patient. Squires advises Luke to make the most of his youth: go out, get laid, get your heart broken, fuck up, take drugs. Squires himself is in a miserable relationship with his cold-hearted wife (Famke Janssen) and his flighty, shallow stepdaughter, Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby). Luke and Squires end up on a drug-muddled journey to find pleasure in their lives that are otherwise rife with misery and woe. You know, like everyone else collecting a meager paycheck to live.
At this point, it seems like this would devolve into a cliche-ridden 8 Mile-style ride where a young man finds solace in hip-hop on the way to true love and glory. Thankfully, Levine chooses a much more interesting path. Even though Luke is a drug dealer, he’s far from one of the cool kids. He’s the most popular of the unpopular kids, or the most unpopular of the popular kids. Luke could have been a stereotypical smoove talker with his bitches and his steel, rolling up on shorties to keep things real. Instead, he follows the path of De La Soul. While there’s a definite touch of gangsta rap, Luke never once ends up like some sort of Jamie Kennedy monkey, freestyling in baggie jeans and talking street. Luke does slip into occasional hip-hop-opotamus patois, but only to further demonstrate his total loss of identity. He doesn’t know who he is. He just does what he can to get by. And that involves selling drugs to the cool kids and using the money to try to help his parents.
The drug dealing, and taking, is a major part of the film, but it never ends up being a street-life lesson. People use weed to escape from the day-to-day drudgery. The less happy they are, the more they smoke. Squires smokes more than his stepdaughter and Luke. Luke deals regularly to a musician, Eleanor (Jane Adams), who buys pot to smoke with her sometimes-lover because he’s nicer to her when he’s stoned. Drugs aren’t the answer, they’re a temporary solution, and once the smoke’s cleared, nothing has changed. At no time during the film is weed glorified, which is refreshing to see in this age of High Times we live in.
Levine weaves his story carefully into a complex web until every character is intertwined in the narrative. Even minor characters come into the story in important ways. Squires befriends Luke, taking him to bars and getting drunk and making out with one of Luke’s clients, the strung-out hippie Union (Mary Kate Olsen). Squires is as much a state of arrested development as Luke except he’s a grown man who’s supposed to dispensing knowledge and life lessons. Luke takes Squires’ advice and starts up a relationship with his stepdaughter. Stephanie pals around with Luke because she finds it kind of neat he’s a drug dealer, and also because she’s trying to stave off boredom until her friends come back from Europe. It makes for a brilliantly layered story where you’ve got Squires warning Luke of Stephanie because a) the doctor is losing his only friend and drinking buddy, b) he can see how his spoiled stepdaughter is just using Luke on a lark, and c) he’s acting in the role of protective parent in trying to keep his daughter’s chastity intact from a boy just looking for a summer screwaround. Which came on advice from the doctor himself! Wrap that around your dome. Then take a smoke break if you need it.
At its core, The Wackness is a love story about not finding love. It’s about having your heart trounced because life is shitty, and that’s what happens, and that’s a more important lesson to learn sometimes than finding storybook romance. Still, love is a more powerful force than drugs in this movie. In one of the best moments from the film, Luke comes home from his first kiss with Stephanie riding higher on life and euphoria than any toke he could possibly take. It’s the first genuine smile we see out of any character in the movie, and it speaks volumes about what Levine is trying to say.
The acting is superb all around, from minor characters to major, and it’s not just because we’re finally getting to see some second fiddles get to play first chair. This will be the movie that gets Josh Peck better roles, since so many people missed his incredibly nuanced performance in Mean Creek. Peck infuses Luke with this sort of Michael Rappaport-meets-mc-chris level of geek-hip insecurity. Thirlby was relegated to the MTV-patter best bud in Juno, and she was wonderful, but here she manages to play a spoiled, bored popular girl without making her a bitch or even a villain. She can only break Luke’s heart because you honestly believe she was in love with him a little, too. Janssen seems to always play the bitchy wife of every amusing male character in cinematic history, so of course she’s good.
Then there’s Kingsley. Forget every guru, every dragon villain, everything. Wash your mind clean. From his bizarre long hair to his weird honking accent, he’s a motherfucking delight to watch on screen. At any moment, he could have plummeted into complete cutesy caricature, but watching him and Peck on screen, with their no-bullshit strange friendship, is what movie watching is made for. Between Sexy Beast and this, he’s got a permanent Christopher Walken Pass for Life.
Even the two-sceners rock their short screen time. Olsen’s promiscuous nymph, Method Man’s strangely Jamaican-accented drug connection, Jane Adams (who I believe should be in every goddamn movie) as the waifish neurotic, and Aaron Yoo — who’s got more diverse acting chops than I’ve ever seen, dude was Heston in Rocket Science, the best buddy in Disturbia, and now this — as the popular kid who keeps Stephanie in his stable.
The only other star of this movie is the soundtrack, which hugs up against the story and melds like a thing of perfectly pitched beauty. Mix tapes abound throughout the story, with characters trading songs like Garbage Pail Kids cards. The soundtrack jumps from hip-hop to rap to classic rock to classical (Squires’ secret drug name is Haydn), matching the characters as necessary and being perfect in the moment. You could listen to the soundtrack and know exactly what was going on in the story without ever seeing a frame of the movie. As I bobbed my head along to the beats, I found myself thinking of Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude where music is the message that connects people. When Luke imagines explaining his feelings to Stephanie, he says he wants to listen to Bell Biv Devoe with her. How motherfucking perfect is that? Westsidephilly, back again.
The movie is gloomy and sad, with a washed out, somber tone to every image and frames that are slightly out of focus on the edges. It doesn’t end happy. It ends the way it needs to, which still manages to elicit a grin. Just as things start to get too dark, there will be a small gesture to keep the tale amusing. There are points that are outright buoyant and dream sequence-like, but Levine doesn’t overplay it into the realm of Gondry or Jonze. He makes a few mistakes for a relatively rookie filmmaker: The pacing is kind of languorous, and some of the snatches of dialogue are a little too precious and cookie-cutter. But if we’re able to overlook these moments in Juno, surely they can be forgiven in something with a more mature tone. The Wackness is a complicated love story with complex relationships, and a stellar cast with a fresh set of beats. It’s like firing up a mix tape you made for an ex-girlfriend: It’ll bring back all the heartache and love and sweetness of those moments you used to spend wasting your lives together.
Brian Prisco is a warrior-poet from the valley of North Hollywood, by way of Philadelphia. He wastes most of his life in desk jobs, biding his time until he finally becomes an actor, a writer, or cannon fodder in the inevitable zombie invasion. He can be found shaking his fist and angrily shouting at clouds on his blog, The Gospel According to Prisco.Catch Me Trippin' on Earth When I'm High on Sunshine
Film | July 7, 2008 | Comments ()