' ' Cinema Romantico: The Wackness

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Wackness

I rememember the year 1994 fondly. A Springsteen-esque obsession with A Tribe Called Quest (the last great rap band) and a journey to Atlanta for a summer week to attend the National Lutheran Youth Convention and an autumn consumed by the intense drama of Nebraska's run to 13-0 and a National Championship. Yes, I remember it quite fondly. Apparently, however, there were kids near my age engaged in lives not mirroring my own in capacity. Or didn't they? Upon seeing writer/director Jonathan Levine's 1994-set tale "The Wackness" in which drugs, sex, and a whole lot more drugs play a central role someone like me may be quick to assume there are no similarities between my 1994 and the 1994 experienced by the clan of "The Wackness". But there's something here for everyone. I'll explain.

Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck, who I learned after seeing the movie also stars on a Nickelodeon kids show) lives in a New York City that has come under the (apparent) wrath of Giuliani with an unstable mother and father living in constant fear of eviction and is set to leave high school behind as the film opens. "Tomorrow I graduate," Luke says in voiceover, "and then I go to my safety school, and then I grow up, and then I die." Ah, life. The requisite graduation party passes quickly as Luke watches it from afar, showing him to be an outsider. He has no friends.

Well, he has one. This would be Dr. Jeff Squires (Ben Kingsley - whoops! My apologies! That would be Sir Ben Kingsley!). Squires is Luke's psychiatrist but, more importantly, his client. You see, Luke earns his money dealing drugs. He masquerades as an "ice seller", wheeling a cart containing healthy lumps of marijuana around the city and providing a weekly supply to Squires who, in turn, offers young Luke worldly advice. Perhaps, though, this isn't the best arrangement since Squires has got his own issues - namely, the aforementioned drug dependency and a marriage (to Famke Janssen) that is pretty much Dead Couple Walking.

Squires has a beguiling step-daughter named Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby) who graduated with Luke and, despite being a tad more popular, strikes up a friendship with Luke that may or may not lead to something more. And while Kingsley is certainly a riot in the let-it-all-loose role (he makes out with Mary Kate Olson of "Full House" fame who seems desperate in her limited screen time to let everyone know she's ACTING!!!!!) the real value of the film, I thought, was found in Luke's courtship of Stephanie. He may attain his drugs from a supplier (Method Man) who is guarded by men with automatic weapons but, really, Luke is just an unsure, awkward, self-conscious 18 year old.

I won't argue that Stephanie's character is pretty one-note, but I'll also argue that is Levine's primary point. A male this age who meets a vexing girl like Stephanie is bound to make her the answer to all the world's problems. He'll think he's in love even though, obviously, he's not. In his eyes, she's perfect, and she's still perfect even if she chooses to break his heart. There are no flaws to a person like Stephanie - not to Luke, anyway. And that's how we see her, from Luke's vantage point.

This is the third film I've seen Thirlby in since December, along with "Juno" and "Snow Angels", and she grows more sultry and seemingly more talented with each one. I defy all those who naysay woman with a fetish for smoking to tell me she could possibly be more intoxicating without a cigarette in the scene late at night on a sofa while watching TV. (Please mark my words right now - Thirlby is going to be a flat-out star.)

Luke and Stephanie talk in "mad" slang, "yo", and smoke joints, sure, but there is a tenderness and truth to this romance that is simply not found in most films of its ilk. It deals with love as a teenager in a very real, very poignant way. Their first kiss is so brilliantly handled in every way - right down to the brief interlude of fantasty at the end - it might just be the finest three minutes of cinema I've seen so far this year. And later when the two are on a beach, the eloquent cinematography matching their silhouettes against an almost other-wordly shimmering ocean in the background, discussing how Luke agonizes too much at a point in his life when he only needs to live and experience, well, you might find yourself thinking they sound like two kids trying to come across as adults and just sounding corny. Except than you remember at that age you too desperately wanted to come across as an adult, usually with corny results.

The film is by no means perfect and slips and slides a great deal in the third act with curiously flat payoffs. You have some idea from the get-go of where the storylines for both Luke and Squires are headed and that's okay if your movie has the heft of a tragedy, but "The Wackness" moves at more leisurely pace and finds its worth in the smaller moments and the patterns of everyday life. Even with a partial flameout at the finale, though, there is an awful lot to cherish in this movie, especially if you came of age during the mid-90's. And no, it doesn't matter if you didn't do drugs and didn't say "peace out" instead of goodbye.

It brings to mind a particular line rapped so gracefully by A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip that I used to listen to over and over on my discman way back in '94. "See, my s--- is universal if you got knowledge of dolo or delf or self". Despite its content, at its core "The Wackness" is pretty universal.

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