Wackness, The

Sundance Film Fest 2008 (Dramatic Competition)–The coming of age saga is one of the most reliable genres in American cinema in general and at the Sundance Film Festival in particular. Over the past decade or so, each and every year, the Dramatic Competition has included at least one entry. This year, Jonathan Levin's sophomore effort, “The Wackness” fits the bill, joining the company of “Donnie Darko,” “Thumbsucker,” “Rocket Science,” and so on.

The winner of the Audience Award, which bodes well for the commercial prospects of the Sony Classic release, the new comedy finds a reasonably new angle in the relationship between its youthful protagonist and an eccentric dope-smoking shrink, played with gusto and panache by Sir Ben Kingsley.

The film is set in the hot summer of 1994, when Giuliani is scouring New York City within an inch of its life, and hip-hop is permeating white youth culture. Jewish high-schooler Luke Shapiro is a pot-dealing loser, who's is trying to figure out how to solve his parents (Talia Balsam, David Wohl) insolvency, beat depression, and get laid before pushing off to college. Getting laid and losing one's virginity are presented as Luke's most pressing problems, and it helps that the saga is set in the past and not at present.

Socially isolated, he deals marijuana out of an ice cream cart in Manhattan's Central Park. Fortunately for Lukas, he's got a lucrative deal with a psychiatrist, Dr. Squires (Kingsley), who trades him therapy sessions for weed. It “just happens” that the oddball doctors marriage is also crumbling, and that he, too, is going through an identity crisis, adding to the film another coming-of-age yarn, except that in this case he's a fiftysomething professional.

Dr. Squire's own love life with his younger wife Kristin (Famke Janssen) has dried emotionally and sexuallydespite efforts at renewal with a vacation at the Barbados (that makes things worse!).

While highly medicated himself, he tells: “You don't need medication, you need to get laid.” In short order, the two malesone in late adolescence, the other in late middle-agebegin to socialize and bond, embarking on a messy journey that takes them out of Gotham to Fire Island and is defined by all kinds of rites of passages, real and surreal, silly and more profound.
It also “just happens” that Luke falls in love with a classmate who just “happens” to be Squiress sexy and popular stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby, who can be seen now to an advantage in “Juno,” as Ellen Page's confidante). The affair is kept as a secret from her father, but it's only a matter of time before he finds outand reacts responsibly, as a conservative (and jealous) dad.

As the summer heats up, and Luke tries to follows his doctors orders, he has to learn how to coexist with pain, or rather make the pain enjoyable and integral to his routine in what could be described as a borderline sado-masochistic case.

Levine blends a familiar tale of first love with the discovery of great vibrant music that could detract and distractat least for a while. He throws into the mix encounters with several amazing and eccentric personalities, all trying to impart to Luke the “real meaning of life.”

Subplot of downward mobility, with Luke's irresponsible father about to lose and be evicted out f their lush Upper East Side apartment, doesn't ring true, but it makes a point for a kid who will absolutely not become a Bridge-and Tunnel-New Jersey boy. Ditto for Squire's spontaneous make-out session in a phone boot with Mary-Kate Olsen, a Central Park hippie, which is forced.

In contrast, graphic depiction of first-time sex, all the way with the various positions involved, is a comedic highlight that causes hearty laughter and induces nostalgia among males down memory lane.

Nicely capturing the textures of 1990s Manhattan and the zeitgeist of worldly, yet emotionally unformed, private-school students, who in many ways are more mature than their parents, Levine conveys a whimsy, occasionally funny and touching tale.

Grabbing his part aggressively, Ben Kingsley shows new facets of his considerable talent and range with flourishes that occasionally give the films deeper insights and happy idiosyncrasies, though there are too many of the latter.

But ultimately the saga belongs to the cool and laid back Peck, a naturally handsome guy, whose innocent voice and deliberately awkward line-readings enhance the likability and authenticity of his characterand the whole movie.

Overextending its welcome by at least 20 minutes, due to several endings, the film could be easily cut since it gets repetitious in the last reel. Curiously, in his intro to the film, Levine said that a whole hour had already been trimmed!

End Note

Jonathan Levine's feature directorial debut, “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane,” which played at the 2006 Toronto Fest to some success, has not been released theatrically yet. Hopefully, “The Wackness,” a better, more assured feature, would expedite the process.

Cast

Ben Kingsley
Josh Peck
Famke Janssen
Olivia Thirlby
Mary-Kate Olsen
Jane Adams
Method Man
Aaron Yoo
Talia Balsam
David Wohl
Bob Dishy
Joanne Merlin

Credits

An Occupant Films and SBK Entertainment production.
Produced by Keith Calder, Felipe Marino, Joe Neurauter.
Co-producer, Brian Udovich.
Directed, written by Jonathan Levine.
Camera: Petra Korner.
Editor: Josh Noyes.
Music: David Torn.
Music supervisor: Jim Black.
Production designer: Annie Spitz
Costume designer: Michael Clancy.
Sound: Ken Ishii.

Running time: 111 Minutes.