If you love the nineties and you know it, then you need to watch The Wackness. The film covers the details of the decade with a panache and delicacy that feels vintage. A little lingo here, a Gameboy there, make this casual comedy a delightful nineties throwback. Each character flows into his/her costume and language elegantly, and does his/her part to uphold the nostalgic nature of the movie. Olivia Thirlby and Josh Peck specifically glide into their roles with rosy grace. This is a movie that glorifies a generation, an age and a moment in time - that moment being the release of Biggie’s first album.
The Wackness follows Luke Shapiro (Peck) as he reaches the end of his adolescence. He has just graduated from high school and has one summer left before leaving for college. The thing that separates Luke’s story from every other coming of age movie is that he’s a marijuana dealer who deals to his shrink for time on the couch and speaks in hackneyed Ebonics. In fact, the entire movie is shrouded by a cloud of smoke and a thick layer of linguistic catch-phrases. The title of the movie is a compounded version of the word “wack,” meaning appallingly awful or a fake.
Ben Kingsley as the shrink is amazing; he waltzes in and drops little knowledge beads like bombs on Luke’s head. Kingsley has by far the best lines in the film. Although his character is a really just a strange mechanism to bring Shapiro’s adolescence to a head, Kingsley makes this pot-smoking therapist into a three dimensional character. His stilted English and leering gaze are as mesmerizing as ever, and he has that touch of Kingsley evil that is hard to remove from one's experience of him. He does not quite outshine the youthful exuberance and beauty of Thirlby and Peck, but he does manage to steal a large piece of The Wackness.
Although this film is a great experience, it is patchy. The movie focuses a lot on the swagger and assumed coolness of the main character, but there is a lot of it that seems a little too eager and earnest. Luke sells dope, laughs at machine guns, and talks a big game, but when it comes to his family and dealing with the fact that he is a loser in the eyes of his peers, he’s an emotional mess. He cries, a lot. This makes for an interesting and complex character, but, at the same time, verges on cheesy at times. After a session with Kingsley, Shapiro reflects, “Sometimes its nice to have somebody to talk to, even if you’re just talking shit.” Its these types of moments that bring you out of the continuity of the story and think maybe Luke really is just a jackass after all. Whether or not Luke is a jackass does not reflect on Peck, though. Peck’s performance is delicately spot on.
Does the consistent use of nineties lingo work? Well, that depends on whether or not you thought it worked at the time. A young white kid living on the upper east side bobbing his head to street hip hop, speaking in Ebonics and smoking cigarettes constantly doesn’t exactly scream “authentic.” The nineties were just the beginning of the “I wanna be black” trend. Shapiro is a testament to this time period. He is a vessel of nostalgia. But, he is one specific trend from the nineties that many found to be quite annoying. If you loved hip hop and Ebonics and relished becoming a part of it all back in the day, this movie might resonate with you. If you hate hip hop and generally dislike improper English, then this film might make you vomit. Whether or not you like it, it is definitely not wack. The Wackness is dope, and if you want to see a lot of great actors wear some new hats, it’s a great movie to check out.
The special features seem thorough at first glance, but are all quite short and don’t really expound upon what you might want them to. There are two featurettes, two “episodes” of “Luke Shapiro’s Dope Show,” four deleted scenes, a commentary with the director, Jonathan Levine, and Peck, and a bunch of different versions of the trailer. The deleted scenes are probably the best part of the special features, other than the commentary, but they are all extremely short, and mainly just parts of other scenes. Obviously, I want more Kingsley, but, alas, there is only a little extra in these deleted scenes.
The two featurettes were clearly made after the movie premiered. The first one, called “Keeping it Real: A Day in the Life of Writer/Director Jonathan Levine,” is particularly ridiculous. It consists of Levine being followed around by a camera during one day of the press tour promoting the film and there is a montage of him talking on the phone. The second featurette is called “Time in a Bottle: Behind the Scenes of The Wackness,” and basically is just a string of actors and producers professing their love for the film. If it would have been an actual making of doc, as it claims to be, I would have been satisfied, but it is not. It is just interviews and clips from the film. Both featurettes feel rushed and haphazardly attached to the DVD.
The two “episodes” of “Luke Shapiro’s Dope Show,” start off with a forward about the show that claims this was a real show that ran on an NYC public access station. I was thoroughly confused, because the date on the episodes read “July 23, 1994” but Josh Peck is featured and fully grown in both episodes. Obviously, these episodes are just a lark. But even judging them from that understanding, they are terrible. “Dope” is a play on words and the show basically consists of Peck smoking weed with the guests he has on his show. Each episode is about five minutes long, and are both upsettingly wack.
The commentary, with Peck and Levine, is fun and fresh and really unpacks what is so great about this film. The dynamic between the two is pretty cute, but I think Peck is only there so that Levine can have someone to talk to. Levine goes into how some of those lush colors were achieved, chastises someone for having a scene out of focus, and jokes about Nintendo games. Peck confesses his secret crush on Olivia Thirby. The commentary is thorough; I enjoyed learning and laughing with these two. It is always great to listen to the writer/director’s perspective, because it is so all-encompassing.