Movie Review: The Wackness
By Tasha Robinson, Special to the Chicago Tribune
For about half its length, Jonathan Levine's film "The Wackness" resembles a grunge remake of "The Graduate," updated for the peculiarly specific setting of 1994 New York City. While it maintains a sleepy, druggy tone for most of its length, rather than "The Graduate's" grim dreaminess, the plot points are unmistakably familiar.
Facing his high school graduation and a long, solitary summer before college, friendless outsider Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) stews in his own ennui and lack of purpose. Angry at his vapid parents and empty life, he half-unwillingly strikes up an inappropriately close relationship with a much older associate - his therapist, Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley). Then he becomes interested in Squires' stepdaughter, Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby). Naturally, Squires defensively tries to chase him away.
The parallels aren't exact - Luke and Squires aren't having an affair, though Squires takes undue, graphically crude interest in his patient's sex life, even offering to buy him a hooker. In spite of his attempts to vicariously escape his failing marriage through Luke's nonexistent wild-oats sowing, their relationship is built more on drugs than flesh: Luke is a heavy-duty pot dealer, and Squires is a steady customer who trades therapy for weed.
And where "The Graduate" felt perfectly poised on the anomie and social confusion of the mid-'60s, "The Wackness" feels awkwardly wedged into its oddly arbitrary era. Levine fills the film with pointed, overemphasized references - Squires moodily regards NYC's still-intact Twin Towers, a mural commemorates Kurt Cobain's recent death, Rudy Giuliani's anti-crime initiatives get a mention, Biggie Smalls' name is repeatedly dropped - but it's all awkward window dressing, the equivalent of a flashing subtitle reading, "1994, remember?" And Peck and Thirlby incorporate "mad" and "dope" into every other line as stiffly as if they were speaking a foreign language phonetically. (The title comes from a simultaneously touching and ridiculous moment when Stephanie explains that while she sees all the "dopeness" in life, Josh only focuses on the wackness.)
Of the entire cast, Kingsley seems to be enjoying himself best as the scenery-gnawing Dr. Squires, a desperately unhappy, overcompensating man trying to be young again because he hates his adult life. His is the sort of outsize character who fits into any era: Whether he's going on a Hunter S. Thompson-esque binge or making out with a hippie-dippie flower child (Mary-Kate Olsen) in a phone booth, he's at least being interesting. There's a good deal of appealingly complicated contradiction in the way he urges Luke to get out and take advantage of women but cringes at the thought of his own stepdaughter getting involved. (There's a good deal of "The Graduate's" Mrs. Robinson in there, too.) And Kingsley brings across his larger-than-life character with panache.
But most of the film lacks his energy and sense of spontaneity. Levine's grimy, desaturated color palette may be intended to invoke the grunge era, but it produces a grayish, tired-looking film full of grayish, tired-looking people whose youthful angst largely feels self-indulgent, familiar, petty and too rigidly choreographed. The 40 elapsed years since "The Graduate" haven't made coming-of-age stories and the search for meaning in modern life any less relevant, but some films capture it more convincingly than others.
MPAA rating: R (for pervasive drug use, language and some sexuality).
Running time: 1:41.
Starring: Josh Peck (Luke Shapiro); Ben Kingsley (Dr. Jeffery Squires); Olivia Thirlby (Stephanie); Famke Janssen (Kristin Squires); Mary-Kate Olsen (Union); Talia Balsam (Mrs. Shapiro).
Directed and written by Jonathan Levine; edited by Josh Noyes; photographed by Petra Korner; music by David Torn; production design by Annie Spitz; produced by Keith Calder, Felipe Marino, and Joe Neurauter. A Sony Pictures Classics release.