Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Wackness (2008)

For a respected, celebrated actor, Ben Kingsley has certainly made some odd career choices of late. Whether it’s showing up in mainstream failures like Suspect Zero, A Sound of Thunder, and The Love Guru, or making an appearance in a Uwe Boll film (BloodRayne), it seems as though Sir Ben is hell bent on sullying his reputation as an actor of class. Either that or the majority of his recent acting choices have been based on a dare. That being said, Kingsley’s role as a philandering, drug-abusing therapist in director Jonathan Levine’s unfortunately titled The Wackness is one of the most delightfully unconventional roles an actor of his stature has taken on in some time. His Dr. Jeffrey Squires is a shrink as messed up as most of his patients, and whether he’s taking bong hits at his desk, running from the police, or making out with an Olsen twin in a phone booth, Kingsley is consistently the best part of this film.

Unfortunately, though, The Wackness is not his story. Instead, this movie is ostensibly about Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck), a depressed weed dealer stumbling through 1994 New York during his last Summer before college. Luke’s parents’ marriage is on the rocks, he is shunned by the majority of his peers, and he has little idea what to do with his life. This is why he’s taken to trading dope for therapy sessions with the immature but well-meaning Dr. Squires, whose advice basically boils down to “get laid as much as possible.” Luke takes this advice to heart, but the girl he’s after is Squires’ stepdaughter, Stephanie, whom he quickly falls in love with despite Squires warning against it.

Josh Peck, best known as an actor on Nickelodeon kids’ shows, is perfectly fine as the awkward, unconfident Luke, but he’s done a disservice by Levine’s script, which commits an unforgivable movie sin: its main character is the least compelling, least likable thing on screen. Peck should be given credit for at least breathing a little life and charm into his underwritten role, but he can only take it so far. We never get to know anything about Luke, apart from learning that he likes weed, girls, and rap music, and that he’s generally pretty glum (which might as well be true of every 18-year-old guy in America). Not only that, but Levine’s whole premise is patently unbelievable: how could a kid who’s managed to talk his way into the heart of the NYC drug trade be so bad at communicating with girls? This bothered me the whole way through the film, and Kingsley is even given a throwaway line in one of the therapy sessions expressing the same disbelief. I guess Levine thought that would be enough to dispel any doubts.

The big problem with The Wackness (other than the title, which I must once again assert to be one of the worst in recent memory) just might be, ironically, that Levine’s supporting characters are so well written. I found myself entranced by Kingsley’s Dr. Squires and Olivia Thirlby as Stephanie, and both characters tower over Peck's Luke Shapiro. Stephanie is by far the most grounded character in the film, and it was nice to see an actress get to play a love interest as though they were a real person and not just a two-dimensional catalyst for the plot. By the end of the movie, I couldn’t help wondering what kind of film Levine would’ve gotten if he’d placed Stephanie or Dr. Squires at the center of his story, and relegated Luke Shapiro to the bit part he deserves to be.

One place where Levine does succeed is in utilizing New York City (dressed here to look like it’s 1994) as another major character. There are definitely one too many references to Rudy Giuliani, who had just taken office in 1994, but there are some nice scenes where the characters discuss the way the city is changing, including one where Squires expresses his fear that his edgy, colorful city will be streamlined into one big “happy meal.” Also bringing some life to the movie is the excellent soundtrack, which features some great old-school hip-hop by the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, De la Soul, and Notorious B.I.G.

But none of this is able to make up for the character problems we find here. I’m not sure if it’s a failure on Levine’s part or something to do with me, but even though I’m not that far removed from the experiences that the main character is going through, I managed to identify a great deal more with Kingsley’s Dr. Squires than I did with Luke. Perhaps it’s neither, and Kingsley is just so good here that he’s able to set himself apart from the rest of the film’s shortcomings. He’s definitely the only reason I’d ever encourage anyone to even consider seeking out a film with such a terrible title.

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