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Review Stew: <em>The Wackness</em>

Film lovers, take note: while you try (and likely have to wait) to see The Dark Knight in the upcoming weeks, do keep Jonathan Levine's crowd-pleasing, festival-friendly, audience-award-winning The Wackness in mind.
wackFilm lovers, take note: while you try (and likely have to wait) to see The Dark Knight in the upcoming weeks, do keep Jonathan Levine's crowd-pleasing, festival-friendly, audience-award-winning The Wackness in mind as an alternative.

 

As a coming-of-age/buddy comedy hybrid fueled by stoner jokes, a golden days of hip hop soundtrack, and set in the halcyon days of 1994, Jonathan Levine's second film, in all its awkwardness and realness, even manages to please New York Press' king contrarian, Armond White, who writes: "It’s laughable when Luke (Josh Peck) adapts ’90s rap lingo (“I like breasteses, fly ladies”) but the way Peck speaks it—in a sob-choked voice, with bangs falling into his teary eyes—the movie evokes some poignant need...When Luke finally opens his heart to Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), his Michael Jackson dance of joy is inspired; Levine creates a visual link to our spiritual and cultural core." [1]

 

This story of love and heartbreak is steeped in nostalgia, and is one of the first films to take a crack at the recent year of 1994: "this was the last moment in the culture before cell phones," notes Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman, "since The Wackness tells the story of a teen drug dealer, pagers and pay phones are part of his arsenal."[2] Pagers and pay phones are joined by that year's cultural touchstones, according to Slate's Dana Stevens: "Like most teenagers, Luke is highly preoccupied with the trends of his day, which allows Levine plenty of chances to dust off his collection of early-'90s memorabilia: high-tops and slip dresses, chronic and Zima, Wu-Tang Clan and the Notorious B.I.G."[3]

 

Because of this flash and love of the era, Variety correctly observes, the film starts off on a jarring, initially unlikable note: "At first glance, it doesn't look like it's going to be much fun being around Luke Shapiro, who's graduating high school in 1994 NYC. He flaunts that era's annoying "wigger" speech--"I'm mad depressed, yo," he tells his shrink. Socially isolated and without a girlfriend, he deals marijuana out of an ice cream cart in Manhattan and for a brief while seems like an insipid hiphop-worshipping white juvenile's fantasy of how dope it would be to be, like, sorta-kinda gangsta."[4]

 

However, Luke's depression is contrasted with his depressed psychiatrist, Dr. Shapiro, who enters the film as "a sight worth the price of admission alone: Sir Ben Kingsley hitting a bong after a therapy session,"[5] as the Wackness-smitten writers at, yes, High Times, put it. "It's more a tale of a young man struggling toward maturity, even as an older man struggles to abandon it,"[6] says NPR, summing up the buddy comedy elements that arise with the friendship of Luke and Dr. Shapiro.

 

"Despite the graffiti typeface, irresistible soundtrack and associated ancillary marketing—this movie is a long way from hip pop-culture posing or generational smugness, and also a long way from the voyeuristic fatalism of Larry Clark's Kids, although that's the obvious touchstone as to time and place,"[7] writes Salon's Andrew O'Hehir, who cites the film's big heart, core of sweetness, and cinematic vision and ambition.

 

wackThe former Nickelodeon teen star in the lead role, Josh Peck, has a certain appeal: "As played by Peck, a compelling young actor with a sandpaper voice and a bulbous jaw that looks as if it were from an Al Hirschfeld caricature, Luke channels the wounded-bird spirit of every toughie who walked Warner Bros.' gangster streets in the 1930s," [8] says the L.A. Times, while The Village Voice's pan makes sure to single out Peck's charm. "He's real like nothing else here: a big, pear-shaped UES Jewish kid unsuccessfully masking his insecurities—he keeps his shirt on when swimming and screwing— with street posturing and headphone-clogged self-absorption. All the drug-slinging material's counterfeit, but the script is refreshingly straight-faced in looking at the strange relationship between white boys and rap." [9]

 

It could be said that the film is one of the first to look seriously at the relationship between white boys and rap. It's been a jumping off point for hip hop blog No Trivia to wax on whiteness and hip hop in film, in a fascinating read; for Brandon Soderberg, The Wackness' "emotional and visceral pull comes from its genuine, "without irony," love of rap.[10]

 

Levine breaks some new ground in creating a vibe of hazy nostalgia and supplying a funky fresh hip hop soundtrack that is actually authentically linked to the characters' moods and lives—one of the funnier bits of dialogue sums up teenage love as "I've got mad love for you shorty. I want to like, listen to Boyz II Men when I'm with you." For The New York Times' A. O. Scott, in a mixed review, the film would be nothing without its strongly sketched characters: "The film's dopeness resides mainly in the idiosyncrasy of the characters and the skill of the actors portraying them."[11]

 

Even in mixed reviews, it's clear that Levine's work is ultimately rather charming; making The Wackness  "a glorious mix tape of a movie," according to the New York Sun, "kicking things off with a rock track, slowing it down with a ballad, switching gears with that rare B-side, and rounding it out with a familiar yet fresh classic. Making a mix tape, as any John Cusack character will tell you, is a careful science, and it's clear from track one that Mr. Levine has good taste."[12]

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