Yet More Sex and the City

wacknessNot unlike the instantly recognizable Woody-Allen archetype--say Alvy Singer in Annie Hall--in The Wackness, Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) is a secular New York Jew who has trouble getting laid and his best friend is his psychiatrist. Where the leads' personas diverge from a neurotic commonality is that Luke prefers computers games to Marshall McLuhan, and The Notorious B.I.G. to George Gershwin.

Additionally, unlike Allen's phobic characters and their more metaphysical struggles ("How can I believe in God when just last week I got my tongue caught in the roller of an electric typewriter?"), Luke’s greatest quandary is whether he's the most popular of the unpopular kids at school or the least popular of the popular ones.

This confusion, needless to say, undermines Luke's social life. Just ask his out-of-his-zone dream girl Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby). She analyzes this troubled youth's problem with an admirable adroitness: "I just look at the dopeness; you just look at the wackness."

This very telling line of dialogue is just one example of why film critics were supplied a glossary with their Wackness press notes, a list of delectable slang not unlike that attached to the novel Clockwork Orange:

Dope: cool, nice, awesome.

Wack: very bad, the worst.

Illin': doing things that can get you in trouble, i.e. vandalism

Breasteses: plural form of breast

Ganja: high quality marijuana, often of Jamaican origin

You see, it’s the 1990s, Giuliani is mayor, and Luke is a senior in high school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

Thanks to his dad’s inability to pay him an allowance, let alone take care of the rent, the boy earns some spending money dispensing drugs from a battered ice-cream cart. Luke’s clients include aging would-be rock stars and the likes of Union (Mary-Kate Olsen), a wealthy teen turned free spirit who winds up fucking his shrink in a telephone booth.

As for his own shrink sessions with Dr. Squires (Sir Ben Kingsley), they're paid off with the aforementioned ganja. In exchange, Luke receives aphorisms:

Squires: The unexamined life isn't worth living.

Luke: But what if the examined life isn't worth living?

The squirrelly-headed doctor, by the way, is the stepfather of Stephanie, who will eventually consider hanging around with Luke post-high-school graduation because all of her real friends have left the city for the locales where popular kids’ families vacation.

So, you ask, during summer break will Luke lose his virginity and win Stephanie over as his girlfriend?

Well, the answers are a bit obvious, but not completely so.

In his sophomore effort (his debut, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, will be released this August), director/writer Jonathan Levine is striving for an extreme quirkiness peppered with naturalism, not unlike that of Francis Ford Coppola's early You're a Big Boy Now (1966), Harold and Maude (1971), or the recent Running with Scissors.

Where Levine slightly falters is in his screenplay, which strives to make The Wackness into a buddy film about a boy and his analyst. But every time the focus strays from Luke and his passions, the film implodes a little. Squires is a secondary character who seems to have been puffed up because Kingsley was cast in the role. The audience, however, is never as invested in Squires's faltering marriage, erotic whimsies, and drug-popping to the extent they give a damn for Luke's travails. Just imagine Holden Caulfield disappearing for fifty pages from Catcher in the Rye or Benjamin Braddock skedaddling off-screen from The Graduate for a reel or two.

But what works superbly well here is the casting of the teen leads. Thirlby, best remembered as Juno's sidekick, is totally convincing as a lass a young man--even a haphazard, Semitic drug dealer--would hanker for. Her Stephanie is charismatically aloof, and then not so aloof, and then aloof again. You can see her character is always playing a part in a play that she's not quite sure she wants to be in, A Streetcar Named Over-indulged Urban Adolescence. Especially when her resolve to be totally hardened to affection starts to crackle, she has you rooting for her "I-don't-care-about-you" veneer to crumble to the floor.

As for the oddly seductive Peck, he perfectly captures the outsider-looking-in pain of teenhood. His Luke has clearly fallen into that abyss between childhood and manhood and is grappling mighty hard to make it out of this hole. That he's still carrying around about fifteen extra pounds of baby fat adds to his characterization, but that will probably turn into muscle by his next picture, knowing how Hollywood works.

Also laudable is Petra Korner's fine cinematography.

So, in the end, what The Wackness might lack in focus, it makes up with a certain undeniable charm. . . and that’s dope, man. - Brandon Judell

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Mr. Judell, who's currently teaching "Contemporary Israeli/Palestinian Cinema" at City College, has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire, Detour, and dozens of other publications.

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