If you’ve been reading any movie news or blogs you’ve probably read someone gushing about the new film The Wackness. It stars Josh Peck of Disney’s Drake and Josh, Ben Kingsley, Olivia Thirlby and Famke Jenssen (?). Taking place in 1994 and with a soundtrack consisting of the “new” artist Notorious B.I.G. among other rap and hip hop stars of the era, it chronicles Luke Shapiro’s (Peck) final summer before going off to college. So what did I think of it?
I have to confess that while I was definitely interested in seeing it, all the positive buzz was giving me a sour taste in my mouth. I don’t know why but for some reason I was slowly being put off by all the gushing of everyone throughout the World Wide Web. I’m not ususally like that either. Usually I love when a small film gets huge praise but for some reason it was making me want to hate it just so I could say I hated it. Now I understand the passion. It’s a great film. I think it’s the Juno effect that had my underwear all twisted up. I thought Juno was a good movie. A really good movie. But I don’t think it deserved the huge explosion of love it received. I guess I was afraid that another solid indie film would explode and become overexposed. But that’s a discussion for another blog. Right now, I have nothing to be scared of. The film deserves all the attention it’s getting.
Peck definitely has a career changing performance. Yet, it doesn’t feel like a performance that could necessarily launch him into better things. It may not seem like it but Peck is playing a very specific character. A lot of what’s great is the way that Peck talks, the way he walks and the way he becomes Luke. But until Peck has another big project (and no Disney does not count) it’s going to be hard to see if it was just genius casting or if Peck really can transform himself and become a prolific actor. I saw Luke as a sort of Napoleon Dynamite. Will John Heder ever live that part down? I mean he WAS that Napoleon. It’s hard for people to separate the two. I fear the same with Peck and Luke.
His character, Luke, is a loner, pot dealer. He graduates high school without having many (if any) friends only interacting by selling pot and then he goes back to being invisible. His parents are having financial difficulties while rarely paying attention to him and he recently began seeing a shrink, Dr. Squires, that he pays in weed. His summer soon shoots out of control as he develops a deeper relationship with the shrink (Kingsley) and a relationship with his step-daughter (Thirlby). Lucas is into hip hop and writer/director Jonathan Levine not only uses it as a plot device but also as a source for humor. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if Levine is taking the hip hop/1994 era seriously or if he is using it solely as one big joke. Characters gripe about Mayor Giuliani cleaning up NYC and Luke’s hip hop street slang is a continuous source of humor. My conclusion is that 1994 doesn’t seem to be that long ago (does it??) but its almost 15 years ago and he subtly pokes fun at how different it is now, even tho it may not feel that different. I don’t think that the film could have existed in 2007 or 2008, it had to take place in the early 90’s. Otherwise Luke, a white kid who loves the hip-hop world, would have just seemed like a parody and wouldn’t have felt like a real character.
However Luke is more complex than a pot-dealing, rap enthusiast. Levine destroys the misconception that a high school, pot dealing loner must be a loser. Luke is anything but. He’s an intelligent kid who is having a mid-life crisis at 18 wondering will his life ever get better. Will he ever have a girlfriend, will he ever have friends? Coincidentally Dr. Squires is questioning how he has lived is own life as he battles a dead end marriage. Their friendship is incredibly amusing and your drawn in so quickly that you barely have time to question the oddness of an 18 year old and a 50something guy hanging out, smoking joints and patroling for women. One is scared of not having a future, while one is afraid of not having a past. Kingsley and Peck are great together but it’s definitely Kingsley who steals the show. This is a standout performance for him and I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets some official praise for this role.
But the real thing about this film is that the trailer didn’t prepare me at all for what I was in for. And that was a good thing. I was totally blown away by what I was thinking would be a comedy and while it has it’s hilarious moments, it’s definitely not a comedy movie. It’s I guess what we are calling an Indie these days. I liken it to Thumbsucker another indie gem that somehow fell through the cracks but is actually one of my favorite films of the last few years. Both films follow male teens as they try to find their place in life before going off to college. Yet both are so different. But then again, that story isn’t incredibly original and it’s the way it’s not told not what is told.
So all I can really say is that The Wackness is a really great film. I was sideswiped by something I thought was going to be just mediocre. I have not seen Levine’s first film which is oddly coming out after this (his second) but I am definitely more interested in it now and I think that he will be a filmmaker to watch. As for Peck. He really came out of left field. I never knew the kid on that Disney show had real chops. (And yes, I have seen the show once or twice). In a summer void of any real substance, save a few obvious ones (Dark Knight) and maybe some others (X Files anyone???????) I have to say The Wackness is a breath of fresh air and will hold us over for a few months until real filmmaking makes its fall debut. Or at least until Pineapple Express. I guess we can’t really go wrong with weed movies this summer.