20 March 2009

Movie Review: The Wackness


The Wackness
2008, 96mins, R
Director: Jonathan Levine
Writer: Jonathan Levine
Cast includes: Josh Peck, Ben Kingsley, Olivia Thirlby, Famke Janssen, Mary- Kate Olsen, Aaron Yoo
Release Date: 3rd July 2008 (limited)

The Wackness kicked up quite a fuss at Sundance last year, it scored the audience award and garnered a respectable amount of buzz for its story of a troubled drug dealer coming of age in the Summer of 1994. The film was directed and written by Jonathan Levine, the auteur behind the well made yet still unreleased slasher flick All The Boys Love Mandy Lane, making The Wackness his first course for US audiences. It’s a pity then that in comparison to his other flick The Wackness comes off as formulaic and only fitfully engaging, performances are solid and it features a wonderfully nostalgic soundtrack but overall the script meanders and ends up finishing a story which could have been told in half of its 96 minute runtime.

Luke (Josh Peck) is leaving High School to go to College, and in truth he’s leaving very little behind that he cares for. Ignored by the majority of his peers, Luke deals marijuana almost as much for fun as profit and in turn has made friends with Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley) a psychiatrist who offers him advice in turn for a little bit of the green. As the summer develops Squires and Luke find their connections strengthen based on each other’s troubled home life and many curiosities, whilst Luke slowly starts to romance the Shrink’s daughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby) much to the older man’s disdain.

The key problems with The Wackness rest in its overstretched and more than slightly tired central concept, the film is after all working firmly from the coming of age template utilized by other multiple pictures. I was pretty impressed with the cast; Josh Peck is restrained and likeable as the confused and dissatisfied Luke whilst Ben Kingsley would never miss an opportunity to play a personality as quirky and flamboyant as Squires. The real surprises is in the way that the two actors combine to make their paired scenes so believable, the portions of the movie where these two find themselves in heart to heart situations are easily the best. Olivia Thirlby’s role is underwritten and unimaginative though she fares better than she has any right to with the bog standard characterization. Finally Famke Janssen shows up from time to time as Squires cold and emotionally removed wife, much like Thirlby’s the part is weakly conceived but unlike her younger co-star Janssen fails to elevate her performance above the writing.

The performances may be decent but the character conception isn’t good enough so that we truly end up feeling for the characters. Luke is ultimately a little too pessimistic for audience to connect and whilst the performance is entertaining Squires never really feels like enough of a real person. Levine’s film is almost totally dependent on viewers willingly investing in the lead performances, something the majority are unlikely to do.

The natural story arc here would last around 50 minutes, however Levine has literally yanked and tugged his material out to a merciless 96. One has to remember that despite a few quirks such as the addition of drugs to the cocktail The Wackness is telling a story we’ve seen far too many times before and not enough of its new ideas are worth tuning in for one more sitting. Visually Levine has given the picture a rather unique and not altogether unattractive feel but his ability to make things look credible doesn’t detract from the problematic instance that is his hackneyed and rarely rewarding script.

Emotionally the film offers a few moments of respectable depth and resonance but the audience is unlikely to be invested enough so that the finale means anything to them. To be fair Levine has the decency to at least mix up the conclusion and take it out of more predictable waters, but his lack of a gripping narrative or truly engaging characters renders The Wackness, well….. rather wack.

A review by Daniel Kelly, 2009


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