I've been holding off on seeing this film for sometime due to the extremely polarizing opinions on it. Some cited it as one of the best of the year, while others placed it on the list of the worst. I set the movie on the back-burner, until I had a conversation on Facebook about it with a friend. Here are some of the things she had to say about the film:
"I just watched the first half of the Wackness, it pretty much sucks."
"I don't even know if I can even finish the Wackness...so bad, i just want it to be over, and the guy at the Blockbuster counter was like OH IT IS SOO AMAZING. yeah right."
"I keep starting and stopping the Wackness, hoping it could possibly redeem itself, but i just dont think its possible....UGH. Why do movies have to suck so bad?"
"I finally finished the Wackness, and I still dont know why they made that shit movie, and why anyone would sign up to be in it...SUCKS."
She might as well have called it the best film ever, because she activated my schadenfreude alert, pulling me to the film like iron near a magnet. I rushed to Hastings the next day, rented it, and sat down expecting one of two things: 1) I'd love the film, leading to petty arguments with my friend that would almost certainly lead to hilarity or 2) I'd hate it just as much and we could high-five each other over pithy comments like some makeshift teenage Algonquin Round Table. Turns out, she was being kind.
The Wackness is one of the most turgid "hip" films I've ever sat through. Set in 1994, it's overriding message seems to be "REMEMBER HIP-HOP?!" in all-caps; indeed, as the characters walk through a sepia-toned Manhattan, writer-director (and I'm using both of those terms loosely) Jonathan Levine throws out all the hip-hop hits he can think of, from Raekwon to Notorious B.I.G., and every song ties into the action in moments of cheap irony and cheaper "insight."
Levine centers the film around Luke (Josh Peck), a rap-loving, pot-dealing teenager who just graduated high school and comes home to a mother and father who constantly squabble about money. The father's fallen on hard times at work, while the mom loafs at home, so Luke believes himself to be the breadwinner by selling marijuana. He gets his stuff from Percy, played by Method Man with a high-larious Jamaican accent, and sells his wares from a frozen ice stand that he carts around town. I'm not kidding, he has enough bags packed with marijuana to supply a Grateful Dead tour.
Every week he meets with a therapist, Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley, chewing scenery seemingly for sustenance) and pays for his sessions with weed. Dr. Squires is most certainly the worst therapist in the history of psychoanalysis, but don't worry about that because he's cool. Luke asks for meds because he's feeling down yo, but Squires tells him he just needs to get laid. Just like any other psychiatrist. Squires has 99 problems, but it appears that a bitch is indeed one, as he spends the film pulling away from his wife Kristin (Famke Janssen).
Luke eventually falls for Squires' stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), the most popular girl in school, who sees something in Luke too. Maybe it's his geek charm, or his unwavering devotion to her. Or maybe it's the fact that he could fill an above ground pool with his pot supply. The point is that the two become a couple, and Squires, who doesn't even really care about his stepdaughter, disapproves, because of course he does.
Can someone explain to me why coming-of-age stories are always the same? If it's about a girl, she's the frumpy nerd who "matures" when she takes off her glasses and suddenly she's beautiful; if it's a boy, he has to get laid. Now, a lot of good films make it about something more than this, but The Wackness is not a good film. Luke and Stephanie do eventually shack up, but Luke learns nothing from the experience, chiefly because he looks to Squires for guidance.
And what a terrible role model Squires is. Apart from stooping to trading therapy for pot, he generally blames his lot in life on women. He disapproves of Stephanie dating Luke because he knows she'll be a heartbreaker like her mom. To recapture his youth, he follows Luke around and meets Union (Mary-Kate Olsen), a teenage hippie who knows the beats of the 60s but not the rhythm. The two end up having drunken sex in a phone booth, though this scene never gets any weight attached to it because the characters just sort of forget (though I defy the audience to purge the image of Sir Ben Kingsley groping the girl who used to be on Full House from your mind).
Stephanie does eventually break Luke's heart, but the characters are so poorly drawn it's hard to figure out who's to blame. On the one hand, Luke overreacts when she doesn't call and leaves her a harsh voicemail message; on the other, Stephanie has no character arc and Levin makes her out to be kind of a slut when she doesn't seem like one. I pitied Olivia Thirlby in this movie; she's one of the finest rising talents in Hollywood, but there's nothing she or anyone else can do with this character. She even has to expound upon that awful title: at one point she tells Luke "I look at the dopeness, but you just look at the wackness," and I buried my face into a pillow and screamed. Watch her in Juno and Snow Angels to see what a talent was wasted here.
It's not that I don't think films can center on the music; Cameron Crowe has done it three times. Fast Times at Ridgemont High (which he wrote but didn't direct) captured high school kids in the early 80s in that interim when classic rock had been killed by punk, only for that too to die, and the kids looked for something to latch onto that could be theirs. Singles showed Seattle on the eve of the grunge explosion, back when it was "their" music. His best, Almost Famous, is a snapshot of the moment when rock 'n roll fully tipped over from personal statement and rebellion into commercialized product. Crowe tied music in with the very beings of his characters, crafting touching elegies to periods that you wish you could go back and see. Sure, they were romanticized, but Crowe is so damn sincere that you believe him time after time.
The Wackness does not follow this pattern. Luke likes hip-hop chiefly because it's kind of cool, I guess. He knows a few lyrics and speaks like a wannabe, but I'm reminded of something one of the groupies said in Almost Famous: "They don't even know what it is to be a fan. Y'know? To truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts." The soundtrack has no resonance with the story, which is harsh and presented in sepia tones that only point out how boring this plodding waste of time is. Levine seems to have wanted to capture the hip-hop he loved as a kid, but ended up with sexist nonsense that boxes Luke into a mindset so thoroughly that calling this a coming-of age tale at all seems spurious. Apparently Levine loosely based the film on his own life. How can an autobiographical film not know its characters?