Sony // 2008 // 99 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // January 19th, 2009
Sometimes it's right to do the wrong things.
A critical darling at the Sundance Festival, The Wackness limps onto DVD after making the most minimal of theatrical impacts. Despite its accolades, this awkward, nostalgic coming-of-age film will be a hit-or-miss experience for most. To quote Chuck D: don't believe the hype.
New York City, the summer of 1994. The girls are fly, the music is dope, and 18-year-old Luke (Josh Peck) is making a killing dealing pot. But not all is well in his life. He's making money, but his family life at home is falling apart, he's still a virgin, he can't attract the attention of his object of desire Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby, Juno), and his only friend is his drug client/therapist Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley, You Kill Me), whom he trades dime bags for psychiatry sessions.
Taking Squires' advice to live life to the fullest, Luke makes a play for Stephanie -- who just happens to be Squire's stepdaughter. To his amazement, she responds, and Luke finds himself spiraling down the path of teenage love. As Squires' marriage falls apart, Luke and him spend more time together, exploring drugs and depression together, each offering to the other something missing from their lives.
Hype, hype, hype. The Wackness is an underwhelming indie film, but one can certainly understand exactly why people clamored and sung its praises. A nostalgia piece set in New York in 1994, full of graffiti, weed, hip-hop music, and cassette tapes, it is full of ambition and an unhinged Ben Kingsley. The film has a strong sense of identity and a genuine desire to be liked, to be appreciated and connected with by its audiences. Unfortunately, we've been here before, many times over. Other films simply beat it to the punch. At its core, The Wackness is a John Hughes film tripping over itself, like The Breakfast Club if everyone showed up to detention packing gigantic pipes.
The thing about making nostalgic, semi-autobiographical films is that they immediately divvy up prospective audiences into two camps: those who find the story resonates with their own life and "get it," and those who scratch their head and find no connection. Despite being a high school student in the same age group as the protagonist in this film, and listening to the same music in high school, and even having my heart broken, I found myself reluctantly housed in the second camp. I was kind of bummed about it, too. From everything I had heard about The Wackness, this sounded like exactly the kind of quirky coming-of-age film I normally gravitate towards like a meteorite. Instead, I found myself put off by its self-indulgence and almost forced attempts to be (ahem) dope.
Like a pastiche of every recent indie darling film in the last fifteen years, The Wackness hits all the right notes, but does it with such calculated efficiency that it feels robotic and emotionless. And this devastates the narrative to its core, because as audiences, we need to connect with Luke. Otherwise, we just kind of want to punch him in the face for being a dweeb. The Wackness tries way too hard to be stylish, to be nostalgic, to be clever, to be deliberately nihilistic and emotional that it makes it painfully difficult to give a crap about Luke and his petty, whiny teenage problems. But at least he's got Dr. Squires to help -- and this saves the film from total disaster.
Indeed, the redemptive quality in The Wackness, the element that saves itself from the most heinous of all condemnations (wackness!), is the work of its lead actors, Ben Kingsley and Josh Peck. Their characters share between themselves a mutual loneliness, melancholy, and despondency that transcend the gimmicky premise and clichéd script, and go beyond the film's incessant desire to be quirky. The strongest moments come from the relationship between Squires and Luke, who are for each other many things: father and son, drug buddies, best friends, doctor and patient, and competitors for affection -- most often all of these things simultaneously. It brings out the most low-key stoned performance in Peck and the most unhinged, manic performance in Kingsley, but it all works in this glorious, somber, drug-addled way. There's a lot about The Wackness that annoys the crap out of me, but the subtlety of performance and character development here are worth praising.
It's easy to be hard on a film that sets out to be this hip and quirky (this should come naturally, not feel forced) but The Wackness ultimately hinges entirely on the personal preferences and experiences of its audiences. Despite fully expecting to love and admire it, I found the film empty, soulless, and hollow, but our most excellent Judge Franck Tabouring lavishes praise upon it in his review of The Wackness: (Blu-Ray). And I can see exactly where he's coming from. A film this introspective demands from its audiences a connection to fully appreciate its charms and quirks. If you find it, good for you. I'm kind of envious.
Dredged in sepia, The Wackness has a perplexing transfer -- a sharp and detailed picture laden with excessive haze, grain and yellowed tones that obscure everything in a murky dim of, well, yellow. Black levels are yellow, whites are yellow, color saturation is yellow. Everything is just all yellow. It's a weird transfer. No doubt a stylistic choice by the director; it has a hazy and dreamlike quality, as if evoking some conjured memory from the past, but it is difficult to get a grip on.
Audio is done right, with the full 5.1 surround presentation that pumps out the most excellent soundtrack of early nineties hip-hop perfectly and with precision. With songs from Nas, Notorious B.I.G., Biz Markie, A Tribe Called Quest, Craig Mack, and Wu Tang Clan, you'll get no complaints from me here. The Wackness, for all its flaws, has an excellent soundtrack. Dialogue is clean and sourced firmly in the center channel, and rear channels are rarely used, but still great to see the full surround transfer for a low-key indie film.
For extras, we get a commentary track with writer/director Jonathan Levine and actor Josh Peck, which is light and conversational and full of behind-the-scenes information, casting choices and details of the shoot. A feature, "Keeping It Real: A Day In The Life Of Writer/Director Jonathan Levine" follows the creator of the film around his manic cross-country promotional tour pimping his film to radio stations, film festivals, and such, and runs about eight minutes. "Time In A Bottle: Behind The Scenes In The Wackness" is the obligatory behind-the-scenes featurette with cast and crew interviews and runs 17 minutes. We get two episodes of "Luke Shapiro's Dope Show," a fictional public access show created by the main character back in 1994 and "discovered" in the archive footage of Manhattan Cable television -- a cute idea, but worthless puff. Thankfully they only run a few minutes in length. Rounding off the disc are four deleted scenes, trailers, and an advertisement to sell you the soundtrack (which I can recommend heartily). It's a reasonable offering for a single-disc release.
Maybe I'm just getting old, but my patience for self-important, self-referential cinema is waning. So much of The Wackness feels like an exercise in ego, a romanticizing of high school years on the part of its creator, getting to relive the glory days of...wait, 1994? Hold on a second. I grew up then, and I'd rather eat a gun than watch a nostalgic film romanticizing 1994. I mean, it's barely fifteen years ago! Isn't it a little early for this? This kind of forced nostalgia feels so...desperate.
Take away the dreamy nostalgic touches, the quaint slang, and the cultural references and The Wackness is a mundane drama with the stunningly banal introspection of a stoner reflecting on how awesome he is. That's not the kind of nostalgia I look for in cinema.
A true love it or hate it experience, The Wackness is a tough film to categorize and review. I found it more than a little pretentious and self-indulgent, but others will sing its praises to the moon and back. It goes looking for an emotional connection with its audiences, and if it finds one, it will change your whole perspective on the film. Failing this? It's just this weird, depressing, self-important indie film with a kick-ass soundtrack.
Even at its most annoying, there is something spectacular about the shared scenes with Kingsley and Peck that manage to hit that perfect balance of profound transcendence and complete unhinging insanity. The Wackness is definitely worth a rental, if only to decide for yourself about the film.
Not wack, but not quite dope either.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes