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THE WACKNESS

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Ben Kingsley, Josh Peck, Famke Janssen, Olivia Thirlby, Mary-Kate Olsen, Method Man
Director: Jonathan Levine
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Sony
Features: See Review
Length: 99 Minutes
Release Date: January 6, 2009

“The city's a disaster, Luke. It’s not like it used to be. It's plastic. One big f*cking happy meal.”

“Some people like happy meals.”

“Some people like the Yankees too, Luke. It doesn't mean they're right.”

Film ***

Here’s a film that really knows its period setting right down to the smallest detail. The Wackness is a most superb character portrait, but perhaps the most important character in the movie is the setting itself. You can certainly add this to such other authentic NYC-based dramas set during the early 90s, specifically Spike Lee’s Clockers and Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead.

The story is set during the summer of 1994, and the distinctive hip hop music sound associated with the year is another important character in the film. Such influential East Coast rap artists such as Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, Craig Mack and The Notorious B.I.G. all pop up on the soundtrack during crucial scenes. I wish more films these days made such great use of music the way this one does.

The focus of the story is Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck), a recent high school graduate, and his last summer in the Big Apple before heading off to college. He also happens to be a weed dealer, which he sells right out of an ice cream wagon. How refreshing is it to see a film where a teenage drug dealer isn’t one dimensional and happens to be a good student?

Luke’s most preferred customer, Dr. Jeff Squires (Ben Kingsley), also happens to be his shrink. Actually, instead of selling the drugs, Luke receives free therapy in exchange. He could really use some too because he never had any friends in high school.

Not only does Luke get free advice from Squires, but the two become close friends. The doctor’s latest advice to Luke is that he needs to find a girl and get to know her. The main thing he’s telling Luke is that he absolutely needs to get laid.

Luke takes this advice to heart and pursues his secret crush, Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby). Sure enough, following a series of flirtations, the two do end up striking up a romantic fling. The only problem with the matter is the fact that Stephanie happens to be the shrink’s stepdaughter.

Story-wise, nothing about The Wackness is strikingly original. The coming-of-age scenario is pretty much the same here as it’s been in countless other films. So surprises are kept to a minimum, unless you happen to be someone who has seen few or no coming-of-age stories before.

Nevertheless, the story is very well told and the film itself is truly unique in all other areas. I’m willing to bet that writer/director Jonathan Levine was more concerned about making a distinctive period piece, built around a familiar story arc. And since so much detail has been given to the setting, music and style of the movie, it results in a most rewarding viewing.

In the lead role, Josh Peck makes quite an impact with a revelation of a performance. I never thought I’d see such a career turnaround from one of the stars of Nickelodeon’s Drake and Josh. But after seeing Peck in this film, I have a feeling we’re going to be seeing a lot more of him in the future.

And although he’s made one too many questionable film choices in the recent years, Ben Kingsley will remind us every so often that he’s still a phenomenal actor. That’s very much the case with his performance here. Kingsley disappears completely into the role of the drugged out Dr. Squires, so much so that it’s hard to recognize him as the character looks something like an aging hippie.

All in all, The Wackness is a most effective and very well made period piece and character study. If you happen to have experienced your teen years in the early 90s, as I did, then it will definitely speak to you. For everyone else, there’s still a great deal to admire.

Video ***

The movie has a unique look to it, and definitely one that has an independent feel. The anamorphic picture on this Sony release delivers it quite well, though several shots do carry a heavy bit of grain, but it’s clearly intentional. The image is also heavy on desaturated colors, which lend even more the film’s unique look. It’s perhaps as effective a presentation that can be made for a piece that has independent film written all over it.

Audio ***1/2

The 5.1 mix really took me by surprise. While the film is mainly dialogue-oriented, the hip-hop infused soundtrack adds so much to the presentation in terms of surround sound. Several sequences also incorporate immense surround sound, especially one uniquely shot POV sequence. A remarkably handled sound presentation!

Features ***

This Sony release features a commentary with writer/director Jonathan Levine and actor Josh Peck, Deleted Scenes, two featurettes; “Keeping It Real: A Day in the Life of Jonathan Levine” and “Time in a Bottle: Behind-the-Scenes of The Wackness”. Also included is “Luke Shapiro's Dope Show”, which consists of two mock local access TV episodes featuring the lead character. Lastly, we have Trailers for the movie, as well as Bonus Trailers for additional Sony titles.

Summary:

The Wackness is a unique slice of life story with a huge level of authenticity applied to the time period. Memorable characters, great music and terrific performances combine to make this a terrific little gem of a film.

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