Background: I have a prediction. The 90's are the new 70's. Watch for several of the following to catch on again in the near future, if they haven't already: tapered jeans, flannel shirts, cassette tapes, Doc Martens, fluorescent colors, slap wristbands, Sega, pagers, Zima, British Knights, Cross Colours, laser tag, and the phrase "word up" (a personal favorite of mine). OK, so I stole a few of those from The Wackness, which I previewed after it played at MSPIFF. Eat my shorts if you have a problem with that. Psyyych! Alright, anyway, Jonathan Levine (All the Girls Love Mandy Lane) is getting "this party started right" with his semi-autobiographical film starring Josh Peck, Ben Kingsley (Gandhi...sigh...The Love Guru), and Olivia Thirlby (Snow Angels, Juno). Also making appearances are Mary-Kate Olsen and Method Man, who believe it or not has already appeared in a film in 2008. The Wackness, one of my sleepers in the Getafilm Box Office Moguls League, was the Audience Award winner at Sundance last January.
Synopsis: It's the hot summer of 1994, and New York City is undergoing an identity change with the arrival of street-sweeping mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The year is 1994. Luke Shapiro (Peck), is a dope-dealing dreamer whose closest confidant is a shrink, Dr. Jeffrey Squires (Kingsley). Squires happens to be both the father of Luke's crush, Stephanie (Thirlby), and also Luke's most loyal customer, exchanging fluffy advice for dimebags once a week. Luke and Stephanie have just graduated high school (Class of 1994), and Luke needs to figure out what to do with his life. When not daydreaming about life away from his detached parents, Luke pals around with Squires or Stephanie, making trouble or making love, depending on the person. As the drug and alcohol-fueled summer of 1994 comes to an end, we find out if Luke has learned how to see the "dope" side of life - and if he's put his trust in the right Squires. (Don't forget, it takes place in 1994).
+ The soundtrack. Wow, how could you not?A Tribe Called Quest, The Notorious B.I.G., Method Man, Raekwon, KRS-One, and, of course, Mott the Hoople.
+ Ben Kingsley, who's never seen a role he didn't like. Long-haired and strung-out, this one somehow works.
+ Josh Peck and Olivia Thirlby, individually and as a couple, they were perfectly cast in these roles. Watch for Thirlby's stock to rise sky high after this one.
+ The graffiti and other graphic stylings.
- Mary-Kate Olsen.
- The darkness over every frame. I don't know if this was a style decision (a lens filter) or a technical issue (bad lighting), but it was annoying either way. Or wait, was that how it looked in 1994?
- Method Man and his "Jamaican" accent. Jamaican me roll my eyes.
- Jonathan Levine's obsessive referencing of the year 1994 - the music, the language, the clothes, the news, the city, and on and on and on. This isn't a period piece. It's 14 years ago.
Writing - 7
Acting - 10
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Significance - 4
Total: 43/50= 86% = B
Last Word: It should say something about a movie when the soundtrack jumps out at you as the highlight. As with The Wackness, the sum never quite equals the parts. Take away the music and the cool graphics and the nostalgia, and it's a fairly bland story. Don't get me wrong, it was fun in the sense that I chuckled here and there and was moderately entertained, but for an original story it lacks emotional depth and even a bit of real world relevance. We're supposed to see the "dope" side of life and not the "wack" side? It's a cute phrase, but a little too immature if you're trying to send any type of meaningful message.
I don't know if that was Levine's motive here, though. This is partly his life story, after all, and it's a tale of young love that most anyone can relate to. He gets extra points for the music and the clever styles thrown in here and there, but the writing gets a little tired and the ending felt rushed. So I guess I'm saying that there are unfortunately just enough flaws to overshadow the good stuff.
As The Wackness's Sundance win overlapped with Juno's road to Oscar glory (quick, name the 10 best movies of 2007 - where's Juno?), comparisons between the two have jumped up all over the place. As far as I'm concerned, the only similarity they share is the song "All the Young Dudes", which, as it happens, was also used in another teen movie: 1995's Clueless. Was it meant to be yet another 90's reference?
While it's an entertaining departure for a hot summer night, there just isn't enough dopeness in The Wackness to set it apart from the scads of other coming-of-age movies these days. See it to appreciate the music and the cast (and to, ahem, help my box office numbers), but then get with the times.