Saturday 10 March 2012

From the archive: "The Wackness"

Here's one to make us all feel older than we already are: a film expressing nostalgia for the long, hot summer of... 1994. In The Wackness, Josh Peck plays Luke Shapiro, a social outcast and teenage dope dealer, dispensing his wares from an ice cream cart to the sounds of the Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff. With his parents engaged in an ongoing row over money, Luke elects to spend his extracurricular earnings on a course of therapy with wild-haired, disreputable Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley). The latter has issues of his own to work through: desperate to escape a loveless marriage, he seizes on Luke as a conduit for reliving his own youth, accepting quarters and eighths as payment for his services, reaching for a bong in the middle of their sessions together, and prescribing unusual solutions for his patient's woman troubles ("I can get you a hooker, if you like").

The mentor and the student, all over again: shot in the dingy grey-greens of New York before the Giuliani clean-up, this second film from writer-director Jonathan Levine (All the Boys Love Mandy Lane) aspires to being a grungy Good Will Hunting, swapping the well-manicured lawns of Boston academia for the mean streets of the city in August. For all its possibly autobiographical flourishes, The Wackness feels rather more packaged and tidy than that: it's a feelgood movie about a boy and his broken heart. Of course, the shrink should arrive with a daughter (Olivia Thirlby, Juno's best friend) with whom Luke gets to have lots of lovely unprotected sex. ("That's what the pill is for," she insists, when he fumbles for a condom.)

Levine's script unspools, not unenjoyably, as a mixtape of pop-cultural references (Kriss Kross and Pearl Jam, Pump trainers and Jason Priestley) and what I hesitate to describe as period dialogue (lots of "yo"s and "peace out"s). As in the majority of films by young male writer-directors, the women mostly remain cyphers: Thirlby, eating ice cream from a bowl perched ever so delicately on her hip, is fetching, and there's a vivid cameo from Jane Adams as a neurotic, reclusive musician ("In '82, we were really big"), but both Talia Balsam (as Luke's mother) and Famke Janssen (as the doctor's estranged wife) are left to look baleful in kitchens.

The film's centre is the relationship between a world-weary lad and a juvenile grown-up, the latter role allowing Kingsley to cut loose once more, getting into Mary-Kate Olsen's pants by telling tales of the Grateful Dead. The actor has become Mr. Ubiquity of late - three movies in a month is usually a sign someone's got major property bills to pay - but these roles suggest less a mid-career lightening up à la Meryl Streep (Elegy would argue against that) than a performer taking a leaf out of the Chris Walken career plan: becoming part-character actor, part-caricature, with all the eccentric choices (The Love Guru) that that entails. Dr. Squires and Luke eventually bond over A Tribe Called Quest's "Can I Kick It?": the riff from "Walk on the Wild Side" updated with the sound of the streets. Nicely played and distinctively composed, The Wackness often feels as though that soundtrack came first, and everything else followed.

(August 2008)

The Wackness screens on BBC2 tomorrow night at 1.15am.

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