Directed by Jonathan Levine
Starring Josh Peck, Ben Kingsley, Famke Janssen, Mary-Kate Olsen, Olivia Thirlby
Release date: July 3, 2008
Like its protagonist, The Wackness is inelegant but likeable; get past the clumsy posturing and he/it even manages to be affecting. Despite its strange title and nostalgic packaging, The Wackness is a fairly simple coming-of-age tale made worthwhile by its well-written, superbly acted leads.
Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) is spending his last summer before college selling pot and pining after fetching, popular Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby). He’s also attending regular counseling sessions with his kooky client-turned-shrink Squires (Sir Ben Kingsley), who happens to be Stephanie’s stepfather and has some woes of his own. The two men bond, of course, and loving, learning, and moderate hilarity ensue.
Director Jonathan Levine has an unfortunate tendency to get in his own way by bogging down what should have been a funny, genuine film with heavy-handed period details and predictable clichés. The film’s setting — Manhattan, summer of ’94 — gets almost as much attention as the characters and plot, and not in a good way. Levine’s affection for the time and place is evident, but what he probably considered a loving eye for detail comes across about as subtly as crimson graffiti on a drugstore window. Recent-past period pieces succeed best when the references are presented as a natural part of the fictional universe, a la the 1980-set Freaks and Geeks. Instead, Levine inserts clunky metaphorical rants about Rudy Giuliani and gratuitous references to the Notorious B.I.G., lest we forget the year for five whole minutes.
Similarly, Levine peppers the film with clichés that don’t quite ruin the movie, but certainly distract from its strengths. A bittersweet scene in which Shapiro confronts Stephanie about his feelings is soured by the sensation that we’ve seen this same exact sequence a million times before. Delicate acting by Peck and Thirlby almost rescues the moment, but the scenario’s ending is so immediately obvious that it ultimately feels like a waste of time.
So it’s a good thing that the film’s saving grace is a big one: good old-fashioned characterization. Though the roles, as written, can veer toward stereotypical indie quirketypes, Kingsley, Thirlby, and especially Peck elevate them to sympathetic, believable people. Kingsley in particular has his work cut out for him. Squires is so aggressively weird that in the hands of a another actor he could have easily become a lazy collection of idiosyncrasies. As it is, Kingsley’s eating up the carefully period-appropriate scenery. But he also fleshes out Squires, making him comically wacky without losing grasp of the deeply disappointed man underneath. Likewise, Thirlby takes an easy role and makes it difficult, imbuing Stephanie with more spirit and complexity than these unattainable pretty girl roles usually deserve.
But the real treat is Peck, who embodies Shapiro’s awkward, disaffected persona so fully it’s hard to believe he could be anyone else. While Levine deserves credit for writing Shapiro an arc that deftly combines humor and pathos in a way that feels organic and sincere, it’s Peck who brings the character to life. He moves with the lumbering unease of an insecure young man still growing into his body, and instinctively swells and deflates as his moods change. His face betrays both the cynicism and naiveté of youth, and he delivers his lines with the self-conscious cool of high schoolers everywhere. Watching him, you realize the difference between a handsome, confident actor playing dorky and the real thing. Which is not to say Peck himself is dorky, but when he does it, it sure seems genuine.