A long time ago in a decade far far away
THE WACKNESS Directed by Jonathan Levine. Starring Ben Kingsley, Josh Peck, Olivia Thirlby, Famke Janssen, Mary-Kate Olsen, Jane Adams, Method Man
16 cert, Cineworld/IFI/ Light House, Dublin, 99 min YOU MIGHT think it’s a bit soon to be getting all nostalgic for the mid-1990s, but The Wackness wallows in that era. Written and directed by Jonathan Levine, whose film school graduation short dealt with a drug-addicted hip-hop DJ, The Wackness is set is New York in the summer of 1994, the year Levine graduated from high school.
Awash with scratchy samples, the soundtrack features Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, Wu-Tang Clan and R Kelly. There’s talk of Notorious BIG, who was still alive, and Kurt Cobain, who had just died. Conversations are peppered with period slanguage, most prominently featuring “dope”, a synonym for “cool”, and “the wackness”, indicating that which is negative.
Posters for Forrest Gump are emblazoned on Manhattan buses. People use old-fashioned pagers and public phones to communicate. The Twin Towers are still standing. And the city’s mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, has embarked on his zero tolerance campaign.
Giuliani is the subject of several derogatory references from Dr Squires (Ben Kingley), a potsmoking psychiatrist who provides analysis sessions for 18-year-old Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) in exchange for the marijuana Luke peddles from an ice cream cart on the streets.
Luke, who has just graduated from high school, is self-absorbed, and like Benjamin in The Graduate, he’s a little worried about his future. His father has financial problems and the family faces eviction from their upper east side home.
Luke is as sexually frustrated as he is inexperienced. Although Squires encourages him to lose his virginity, he discourages Luke when the teen falls for the doctor’s attractive, confident stepdaughter, Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby from Juno). Meanwhile, the psychiatrist’s second marriage, to a glacial younger woman (Famke Janssen), is falling apart.
The Wackness won the audience award at this year’s Sundance festival, affirming the enduring appeal of the coming-of-age movie in which the protagonist is a troubled, insecure male teen. For all its familiarity, and despite featuring dialogue that at times sounds more scripted than natural, the movie is spiked with a refreshing directness and an obligatory quirkiness that resists predictability.
It also gains significantly from Kingsley’s immersion in his role, complete with long hair, a goatee and flashy shirts. He plays the psychiatrist – who well merits the admonition, “Physician, heal thyself” – with a well-judged blending of wit, sensitivity and subtlety.
This is the third Kingsley movie released here this month, and along with the Philip Roth adaptation Elegy, it provides atonement for his acting crimes in the unspeakable The Love Guru.
Guess what’s on his mind? Josh Peck in The Wackness