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The Wackness is Dopeness

The Wackness, Dir: Jonathan Levine, Now Playing

<i>Squires and Luke selling it big on the streets. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.</i>
Squires and Luke selling it big on the streets. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Winner of the audience award at Sundance this year, The Wackness is a story of two outcasts: one a middle-aged therapist/weird old guy who can’t connect with his wife and misses the good old days, the other a lonely high schooler who deals pot, crushes on girls out of his league, and loves hip-hop. Through each other, they find meaning and human connection—and they may also become men. But for those who seek another Half Baked, be warned: this is not a Harold and Kumar piece on pot, nor a self-conscious pun-filled Juno-ish look at trendy dorkdom. It’s a serious movie, so don’t take it too lightly just because the main character is a newly minted high school graduate who likes to gets high.

It’s 1994. It’s hot, it’s New York City, and the beats have never been better. Luke Shapiro is a loner and smokes up his shrink. His parents are broke, and this summer he has to sell as much weed as possible so they can keep their house. But this kid is no fuck-up. He’s the young, urban dreamer. He worships Notorious B.I.G., and his base of operations is an Italian ice cart, boom box attached with the beats blaring. But he’s depressed. He needs to get laid, and he hates his parents. Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley) is his therapist, biggest client, eventual cohort, and mentor who provides an anti-conformist take on growing up: “Men do the things they need to do to become the men they want to be.” The Wackness is about Luke and Squires’s quest for manhood and how they face emotional pain. “My life sucks,” Luke says. “I’m mad depressed, yo!” But this isn’t a period piece designed to laugh at the past in retrospect, oh no. It feels like director Jonathan Levine was just there. The acting, authenticity of dialogue and New York City summer setting is spot on—in contrast, for example, to Juno’s forced and unrealistic exurban community. Levine has created a movie that sticks with you in the way classics do. In fact, The Wackness may be one of the best coming-of-age stories so far this decade; think Reality Bites meets Good Will Hunting. Which is to say, if there’s only one film you see this summer, see The Wackness.

Luke—while yes, a drug-dealer—wants to fall in love, save his parents from dysfunction, and figure out who he is, just like any other kid. One girl alone can save Luke from loneliness: his shrink’s stepdaughter. Too bad she just wants to be friends. But this summer his mission is to make her change her mind, and Squires is going to help him. In fact, they’ll wind up helping each other. By the end of the summer, they will each become men. Or boy-men who share the motto that sometimes it’s right to do the wrong things. Or it could be as simple as when Luke says, “Sometimes it’s nice to have someone to talk to. Even if you’re just talking shit.”

Olivia Thirlby plays Luke’s crush. Josh Peck from TV’s Drake and Josh plays Luke. Famke Jaansen is a drunken mom. Method Man is a Jamaican drug lord. Mary Kate Olsen is a starry-eyed hippy on mushrooms. The cast is offbeat, and it works. And hip-hop itself, the music that defined Levine’s generation, also plays an important role: one night while at a bar, Squires puts classic rock on the jukebox. But Luke likes A Tribe Called Quest, The Pharcyde, De La Soul. Squires doesn’t know anything about hip-hop, so Luke makes him a mix tape. Squires makes him one too, of Brahms, Haydn, Pink Floyd. They educate each other. They get stoned, arrested. At times they hate their lives. But they talk about embracing their pain—they really talk—and music is their backdrop. They both seem immature, but as it turns out in the end they’re more functional than everyone else— it’s society that doesn’t understand them, and therefore we see society as in the wrong. Sounds like every coming-of-age story, doesn’t it? The difference here is the script itself, the tight writing, and the brilliant acting take it beyond a simple formula of pat cliché.

In one standout scene Levine cuts from Squires and his wife having soulless sex while porn plays in the foreground to a sunlit deer, watching young lovers do it in a shower on the beach. The vast gap between youth and the aged is proved in ten seconds without a shred of obviousness, and Levine nails the subtlety of generational difference. In another unforgettable image, after a kiss, Luke skips on the sidewalk, the cement lighting up with each touch of his feet. A moment like this, if done right, transports. Style and script combine like magic. Because it’s a good storyteller than can make you laugh in one split second and want to weep in another—a great storyteller who makes you do both at once.

Late in the film, Squires arrives at important advice for Luke. He tells him: “Life won’t be easy.” Luke himself is always looking at the Wackness, the wack shit, (for those old weird guys who aren’t familiar with the terminology, that means bad—or at least it did in 1994), but can he learn to let it all go and risk getting his heart broken?

Separated by summer months (sprayed into the title card with graffiti), and by mood—August’s first shot has Luke’s middle finger in front of the camera, hating the whole damn world—it’s a story in three parts. Not beginning, middle, and end, although it flows so seamlessly it could be that simple. It’s more like birth, growth, and death; it’s classically tragic in its portrayal of humanity, and laugh-out-loud funny in all the moments you would expect it not to be. But it’s the last third that propels this film beyond great. Squires and Method Man surrounded by machine guns in a warehouse, smoking a joint, talking about Method’s mother issues, for one example. As the movie closes, both Luke and Squires are faced with philosophical questions, the only clear answer being that their party’s over. But their journey as men, it seems, has just begun. As it has for Jonathan Levine as a director—we will see him again, I am sure. How he can live up to The Wackness in his next project, well, he’s got his own giant shoes to fill.


Makenna Goodman

Makenna Goodman is a freelance writer based in New York City.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2008

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