(Note: We're re-posting the following review of The Wackness from The Tribeca Film Festival to coincide with the film's theatrical release this weekend.)
Finally, a film for kids of the 90's!
This is a hard review to write because it feels as if The Wackness was tailor-made for people like me: a male who grew up in New York City and graduated high school in 1994; the year this film was set. (Actually, I graduated in 1995, but it doesn't matter much: same kids, same lingo, same music, same surroundings). How do you review your childhood? These were all kids I hung out with, this was the music we listened to, these were the mix tapes we made and these were the girls we tried to hook up with ... but didn't. And, to some extent, it actually surprises me that so many people have loved The Wackness -- not because it's a terrible movie, mind you, but because kids who grew up in New York City during the '90s were annoying as all hell, with their "Yo, that was mad good" and their "He's got da skillz, kid!" Trust me, I know -- I was one of them.
It's 1994, New York City. Luke (Josh Peck) just graduated high school, and now he's perfectly content with spending his summer fantasizing about girls on the subway, staying away from his parents constant bickering and selling pot out of an ices cart to a wide range of characters, including a free-spirited hippie chick (Mary-Kate Olsen) and his own therapist. Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley), or as Luke calls him, Mr. Dr. Squires, has his own problems: His much younger wife (Famke Janssen) emotionally checked out of their marriage years ago, and a mid-life crisis is slowly creeping up from around the corner. Luke's the pot dealer with no friends, and Squires is the therapist with more issues than most of his patients. Together, they're a perfect match.
Luke also has a crush on Squires' step-daughter, Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), who takes more of a liking to "that kid who sells pot" when all of her rich, city friends escape to Europe for the summer. Though Luke doesn't want to admit it, he's never had any emotional or physical attachment to a girl -- so when Stephanie shows interest in him, it's just, well, da bomb for this pothead. Meanwhile, Squires and Luke continue to grow closer as friends; smoking weed, tagging walls with black markers and going out for drunken binges with whoever will come along. Eventually, this sucker goes from quirky and nostalgic to deep and meaningful, and if you can stick with the tonal shift (and buy into it) The Wackness turns out to be a pretty good flick. Audiences in their late twenties and early thirties will especially enjoy all the '90s references, and fans of Notorious B.I.G., Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul will absolutely adore the soundtrack.
Writer-director Jonathan Levine does a tremendous job not only in capturing the time period, but also in creating what is perhaps the film's biggest character out of 1994 New York City. Sure, there are times when it feels a little too much like, "Hey, remember when THIS was popular?!" -- but even when it does come heavy-handed, it's still a lot of fun to watch. Extra kudos go to the cast for actually giving us convincing New York accents, which is something of a rarity these days on the big screen unless you're a NYC cab driver, a racist cop or a perverted construction worker.
That being said, there are a few weak spots along the way -- like suspending your disbelief enough to believe there exists a pot dealer who doesn't have any friends and isn't invited to the cool parties. I mean, why wouldn't you invite the pot dealer to your party? The tonal shift at the end, while somewhat set up throughout (I'll give them that), is still a tad jarring and unrealistic (the scene at the elevator killed me -- what 17-year-old talks like that?). Additionally, Kingsley's character, though hilarious to watch, is also a bit cartoonish at times.
But when (and if) you move past that, The Wackness is definitely a good time -- and a great moviegoing experience if you're in an audience full of people in the targeted age range (27ish-33ish). I told a couple friends after last night's Tribeca Film Festival screening that The Wackness felt like a feature-length episode of The Wonder Years ... if that show was set in 1994 NYC. It's got the comedy, it's got great, memorable characters, it's got that nostalgia factor and, most importantly, it's got that last touch of heart that creeps up on you at the end. Fine, I'll say it ...
... The Wackness is mad good, yo.
For more on The Wackness, see Scott's Sundance review.