The Wackness: Canned 90s nostalgia with a great soundtrack

Who doesn’t love and miss the 1990s? There was the Bulls dynasty; America Online; the birth, escalation, and death of grunge music; pogs; seven Ernest movies (or eight if you count the greatest hits video); the Monica Lewinsky scandal; and — who could forget? — Gak!

VH1’s I Love the 90s and Best Week Ever have taught us that it’s never too early to feel nostalgic, and writer-and-director Jonathan Levine’s latest film has taken full advantage of that fact. The Wackness focuses in on the summer of 1994 as NYC’s new mayor Rudy Giuliani cracked down on drugs, and hip hop acts like Wutang Clan, Biggie Smalls, Nas, and A Tribe Called Quest were yanking the recording industry spotlight from California G Funk rappers.


THE FILM

Ben Kingsley (Gandhi) and Josh Peck (Ice Age: The Meltdown) star as an odd pair of friends: the former a kooky, aging psychiatrist with a rocky marriage driving him toward a lust of barely legal women, the latter a recent high school graduate and rap fanatic whose clever pot-selling scheme (operating out of an ice cream cart) cannot compensate for his father’s debt and mother’s laziness. Luke (Peck) sells Dr. Squires (Kingsley) pot in exchange for therapy and ends up becoming his partner in petty crime (smoking a joint in public, Sharpie-tagging a bus stop shelter) and gets romantically involved with the shrink’s worldly stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby). Both are depressed and, as Stephanie notes, see only the “wackness” in life and none of the “dopeness.”

The film, a kind of coming-of-age period comedy, makes use of some flashy editing: spraypaint-imation chapter titles; a thought bubble leading to a fantasy sequence; jump cuts to heighten the intensity of drug trips and sex scenes; and a nifty scene where Luke, in the throes of young love, hopscotches across lit-up sidewalk blocks. For the most part, the color is washed out, reduced to subdued shades of tan and gray to create what someone in the special features called a summery, nostalgic look.

At times though, it feels like Levine and film editor Josh Noyes implement those effects to distract us from feeling bored with cardboard cut-out characters. Take your pick. There’s Union (Mary Kate Olsen), the far-out modern hippie who’s into peace, love, and getting stoned; Percy (Method Man), Luke’s marijuana supplier, who we’re supposed to think is awesome because he has a Jamaican accent; jaded housewife Kristin Squires (Famke Janssen), who takes absolutely no interest in her husband for absolutely no reason; and the protagonist’s parents, who are always either arguing or looking pathetic.


SPECIAL FEATURES

Well, let’s see. You’ve got the standard actor-and-director commentary with Peck and Levine; some crappy (and rightfully) deleted scenes; a rushed making-of documentary wherein the deluded Kingsley hails himself and Peck as “the new Laurel and Hardy” and gushes about how great it was to film a picture in New York; a pointless featurette entitled “Keeping it Real” that shows the director giving phone interviews and standing outside award shows; and a collection of five different teasers and trailers.

On the upside, the DVD includes two three-to-four-minute episodes of “Luke Shapiro’s Dope Show,” a fun feature pretending that the fictional character briefly produced his own Manhattan local access program. Luke invites the apartment super and his neighbor, an aspiring professional dancer, as guests in the laundry room studio and receives threatening phone calls from viewers. The building’s doorman DJs for the show. Delightfully cheesy, 90s-style amateur editing and film quality ensue.


HIGHLIGHTS

When Stephanie accompanies Luke “to work” one day, a customer pegs them as lovers even though (at the moment) they’re just friends. This awkward moment and several others like it are evidently Levine’s specialties, and they add authenticity to the film’s theme of adolescence as a strange time in our lives.

The soundtrack is a big plus as well. If you miss 90s New York rap, you may want to download it, or at least check online to see if your mp3 collection has all the songs covered.


LOWLIGHTS

There’s some very shaky acting on the part of Kingsley, who can’t seem to decide which accent he wants to use. His suicidal tendencies are depicted more as humorous than tragic, and his view of women as objects to use for sex in order to clear one’s mind is supposed to be hip because he’s a Deadhead and wears a funny hat.

More often than not, the 90s references used in the imagery and dialogue feel forced instead of genuine, especially in the first half hour’s ADIDAS, Game Boy, Zima, 90210, and SNES product placements. It takes more than casting a Wutang Clan rapper and an Olsen twin, alluding to the recent death of Kurt Cobain, and lamenting Rudy Giuliani’s new policies to make me believe this period piece conceit. Where were the bowl cuts, flat tops, ZUBAZ, and mom jeans? From the shaggy hair down to the faded tees, characters in The Wackness looked more like a mid-00s American Eagle catalog than anything I remember from ‘94.


VERDICT

I liked The Wackness a lot more when I saw it in theaters last August. Like, a whole lot more. Watching Squires and Luke’s quirky interactions was enough to make my day (and it may be enough for you to enjoy it). Seen again, however, the movie seems a lot more trite and flawed.


STATS

Won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival
Nominated for Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize, the Independent Spirit Awards’ Best First Screenplay, and the Razzie Awards’ Worst Support Actor for Ben Kingsley
Rated 68% on RottenTomatoes
Running time: 99 minutes
Rated R


COMING SOON TO A BLOG NEAR YOU

I will watch and review Hamlet 2 and speculate on what my boy Billy Shakes would have thought of this comedy take-off.