Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Wackness: A Review


It's A Hazy Cruel Summer...

Say what you will about Josh Peck (the "Josh" of the Nickelodeon Network's tween series Drake and Josh).  He certainly isn't afraid to break out of his television persona of the sweet, slightly bumbling cheery chubby teen.  While his partner in crime Drake Bell continues to plug away at such fare as A Fairly Odd Movie: Grow Up, Timmy Turner! and the Animal House-wannabe/fiasco College,  Peck pushes himself to go for truly non-Drake and Josh material like The Wackness.  It shows Peck to have ambitions of being a serious actor, and someone not afraid to take risks.  Amazing what a little weight loss will do.

Sex and drugs are at the heart of The Wackness (things that are so un-Drake and Josh-like).  One can applaud writer/director Jonathan Devine and the cast for trying to make an artsy coming of age drama wrapped with hip-hop lingo and a feel for the streets.  However, one can hold them responsible for simply trying too hard.

It is Summer 1994.  Luke Shapiro (Peck) is living life: selling pot from his ice cream cart, enjoying the rap music coming on the scene (including a new artist named Biggie Smalls aka Notorious B.I.G.), and about to graduate high school.  However, there must be something wrong in his life (apart from his parent's constant arguments over the family finances).  Why else would he see Dr. Jeff Squires (Ben Kingsley), a psychiatrist?  Well, Dr. Squires isn't just his shrink, he's Luke's client...

Exchanging pot for sessions, Dr. Squires has good reason to seek the release of his life via drugs (medical or otherwise).  His marriage to his current wife (Famke Janssen) is unhappy to put it mildly, and he makes a point of pointing out that the girl with them is his step-daughter.  Said step-daughter, Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby) happens to know Luke from school.  Luke, who despite his hip-hop swagger (would it be called swag today) is actually quite shy, takes a liking to Stephanie, and she to him (although she'd like to be just friends).  As the summer progresses, so does their relationship (much to the dislike of Dr. Squires). 

In this memorable summer, Luke loses his virginity to Stephanie (despite his insistence that he has had experience with women), he and Dr. Squires have a run in with the law, the bad doctor and his wife finally agree to divorce, and Luke sees that Stephanie is remarkably casual about sex.  Luke also sees that despite his thriving drug business the Shapiros are evicted from their home and now must be exiled to...horror of horrors...New Jersey.  However, Luke starts to see life for the dopeness (the positive things in it) rather than the wackness (the negative things).

There are also in The Wackness two minor stories: one involving a hippie-like girl (Mary Kate Olsen) and faded rock star Eleanor (Jane Adams), both of whom are connected to the story by being, like Dr. Squires, Luke's faithful clients. 

As I watched The Wackness, I reflected on the biography of Louis B. Meyer I had just finished.  I thought of how he would have summed up The Wackness: who wants to see a story of depressing people?  I know that The Wackness is suppose to be an artsy film about finding that somehow life is worth living despite all the bad things we do to each other, even if it causes us emotional pain.  However, my issue with The Wackness is that everything in the film indicates that it is suppose to be deliberately artsy, and this has the effect of keeping me removed from the story or characters. 

The biggest indication of the high (no pun intended) aspirations of The Wackness come via Petra Korner's cinematography.  Everything is filmed in this hazy (again, no pun intended) sepia, as if a light brown is the only color through which to filter the story.  We also see this in a quick scene where Luke is literally dancing for joy about making a connection with Stephanie.  He dances in the sidewalk where the sidewalk lights up a la Michael Jackson's Billie Jean video.  Even though The Wackness came out before (500) Days of Summer, I couldn't help think the latter did this type of dance routine better than the former, primarily because (500) Days of Summer was meant to be a comedy while The Wackness was meant to be a drama. 

Another indication of the film's artistic aspirations comes in the performances.  Everyone in The Wackness acts as if they were in a film.  There is very little life any of the characters.  Rather, they behave as if they were actors playing at being in a drama.  I note that no one really smiles or laughs in The Wackness (except when they are high or just out-of-it).   That may be part of The Wackness' bigger problem.  None of the characters appear to be real. 

Take Jannsen's character.  Perpetually with a cigarette in her hand, she added nothing to the stock character of the bored second wife.  Likewise, all the other characters appeared to be human.  No one smiled in The Wackness (unless they were high).  Everything was one-note, a bit dour.

Peck for his part did a good job at playing something a young avant-garde actor Ryan Gosling might have done, and he has to be congratulated for going for something different.  Whether it was intentional or not that Peck's Luke looked as if he were slightly stoned at all times I cannot say.  I can say that Devine never directed Peck (or anyone really) to have any range of emotions other than one, whichever appeared appropriate to a character.  Luke is to be dead (or stoned), Dr. Squires nervous (and stoned), Mrs. Squires (a woman who as far as I know had no name) bored. 

Even the minor parts like Olsen or Adams' characters seem attached to where simply cutting them out wouldn't have hurt the story one pit.  They were unnecessary, and unnecessary characters are not a good sign for a good movie. 

As a side note, while watching The Wackness I couldn't help sense that there was an undercurrent of repressed sexual desire by Dr. Squires for his step-daughter.  The doctor's continuing fixation to refer to her as his 'step-daughter' and intense dislike of Luke going out with her did not come across as fatherly concern; instead, it came across as Stephanie being his own Lolita.  Again, I can't say whether it was intentional or not, but that's the impression that I got.

By the end of The Wackness, we pretty much have gone through the steps we thought we would see: the ultimate in hip-hop aficionado (Luke) finally embraces Dylan, he goes through heartbreak with a girl who is a slut, and the good doctor finds his true a drug dealer.  Even he gets a girlfriend of sorts.

 However, the film ends up being one of those artsy affairs that is simply trying too hard to be edgy and insightful.  Rather than let the characters and situations flow naturally, it continuously draws attention to itself and to its own idea of cleverness and insight.  It has the plus of seeing Josh Peck going for something different (and being able to handle himself well enough to suggest he could get a career while his buddy Drake Bell flounders), but it never really makes the case for why we should care about Luke, let alone see him grow as a person.

As I see it, The Wackness is more whacked than anything else. 

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