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Overall Rating

Awesome: 9.09%
Worth A Look: 4.55%
Just Average: 4.55%
Pretty Crappy54.55%
Sucks: 27.27%

3 reviews, 4 user ratings

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Wackness, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Time to Attack the Whack (Thank You Rudy Ray Moore)"
2 stars

Each winter, I get asked by friends, colleagues and publicists if I am finally going to make the January jaunt out to Park City, Utah to attend the Sundance Film Festival. Each winter, I say no and I give the same three reasons for refusing to make the trek to what is generally considered to be Ground Zero for the world of American independent film--going from Chicago to Utah in the middle of January is a lateral move at best, you can only get 3.2 beer unless you go to one of the state-owned liquor stores and I have already had the good fortune to meet Parker Posey. All of these rationalizations are true but I have to admit that there is one more reason--a completely serious one--as to why I have chosen to avoid attending Sundance in the past and plan to do so in the future. Every year, the festival coughs up a couple of films that are wildly praised within its rarefied atmosphere by critics and audiences--they receive awards, rave reviews and the distribution right wind up getting sold for enormous amounts of money--but when they are eventually seen outside of the hoopla and judged entirely by their own merits in more oxygen-rich surroundings, they turn out to be mediocre at best and downright awful at worst. Although I like to think that I am immune to that kind of hyperbole, I suppose that I am deathly afraid that I might succumb as well and write the kind of over-the-top review that might prove to be unbelievably embarrassing a few months down the road. For example, if I had seen “The Wackness,” this year’s recipient of the Audience Award prize (an honor which has gone in the past to films ranging in quality from “sex, lies and videotape” and “El Mariachi” to “The Spitfire Grill” and “Grace is Gone”), I might have gone along with the recognition it was receiving and praised it for being glib and charming and for containing a sprightly performance from an engaging new performer (more on that later). Sadly, this would have been terribly, terribly wrong because the film, rather than being the hip new coming-of-age extravaganza that people were talking up in Utah, is actually the kind of hollow, graceless and deeply irritating failure that pretty much single-handedly embodies everything that is wrong with contemporary American independent film.

Set in New York City during the summer of 1994, that halcyon age when “Forrest Gump” mania swept the land (while the cool kids were waiting patiently for the arrival of this “Pulp Fiction” thing that they had been hearing about), Zima was the corporate-approved beverage of choice (while the cool kids wouldn’t be caught dead holding that Bubble Up-gone-wrong) and Times Square, under the guidance of Mayor Giuliani, shifted from being the shabby hangout of Travis Bickle into just another Disney theme park, “The Wackness” tells the story of Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck), an aimless twerp who lazes away his final summer before going off to college (it is no shock to discover that he will be attending his safety school) by bearing witness to the money squabbles of his parents, listening to hip-hop music and selling marijuana throughout the neighborhood from an ice cream cart. One of his most loyal customers is Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley), a psychiatrist who pays for his pot with therapy sessions and who quickly determines that instead of medication, all Luke needs to do is bust out of his shell and get laid. To this end, Squires, who is going through a mid-life crisis of his own, thanks to his floundering marriage to his trophy second wife (Famke Janssen), decides to take Luke under his wing and show him how to live his life, though this takes an awkward turn when it develops that the girl that Luke has his eye on is none other than Squires’ stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), who takes a liking to Josh out of boredom more than anything else (all her regular friends are out of town for the summer) and takes something else from him during an eventful weekend alone at a beach house in the Hamptons. Also appearing in the mix is a goofy hippie chick played by none other than Mary-Kate Olsen, who gets to participate in a highly publicized makeout session with none other than Kingsley--an event that Kingsley could not have possibly contemplated back in the days when he was playing Gandhi (mostly because Olsen wouldn’t even become a simple protein unit for a few more years at that point), though it is entirely possible that the thought crossed his mind during the downtime while shooting the likes of “Bloodrayne” or “A Sound of Thunder.”

With its combination of a soulfully inarticulate lead character, a retro soundtrack, a decidedly eclectic supporting cast, all sorts of ironic pop-cultural references and a storyline that pretends to have profound things to say about life and love without ever saying or doing anything that might challenge the preconceived notions of its target audience of hipsters looking for the next big thing, it is easy to understand why the audiences at Sundance went nuts for “The Wackness.” However, for those moviegoers who are looking for something beyond those surface elements, the film will prove to be an infuriatingly shallow and pointless experience. One big problem is that our central hero, Luke, is pretty much an unlikable tool from beginning to end. This wouldn’t necessarily be that big of a problem except for the fact that he is an uninteresting, unlikable tool from beginning to end. Although Peck does what he can to bring the character to life, he is unfortunately hampered by the fact that he makes the mope from “Garden State” seem like a lively and self-aware go-getter by comparison. His adventures are less extraordinary than extra-ordinary, his relationships seem to be borne more out of the necessities of the screenplay than anything else and when he faces the inevitable third-act heartbreak at the hands of the vixenish Stephanie, any potential empathy is somewhat tempered by our surprise that she didn’t kick his hinder to the curb much earlier. Most of the supporting characters are equally uninteresting as well--Kingsley never connects with his hypocritical goofball shrink (and seems to randomly transform into a Spaniard every once in a while for no discernible reason), Janssen barely registers during her brief appearances and Mary-Kate Olsen seems to have been cast more for the publicity value than anything else as her character is so poorly developed that she makes Janssen’s look substantial by comparison. The dialogue is astonishingly empty of wit or insight, never more so than during the moments when it thinks that it is being witty and insightful. (If nothing I have said so far has convinced you to stay away, consider the fact that the title of the film actually crops up in the dialogue when Stephanie tells Luke that the problem with his outlook on life is that “you just look at the wackness.“) Even the decision to set the film in 1994 comes across more as an affectation than anything else--there is never a single moment when we are convinced that we are watching a story that takes place in that era and after a while, we begin to wonder why the story was set back then in the first place since it could have just as easily taken place today with no real change outside of the elimination of the soulful-yet-ironic glimpse at the World Trade Center at one point.

“The Wackness” (and let me tell you, just the simple act of writing the title of this film is enough to set my teeth on edge) was written and directed by Jonathan Levine, who was anointed as the hot new filmmaker last year on the basis of his debut feature, the as-yet-unreleased slasher film homage “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane.” I haven’t seen that film yet--it appears to be trapped in some kind of distribution limbo at the moment--but based on the evidence of his work here, it would seem that this yet another case of the indie auteur emperor being caught out without a stitch of hiply labeled clothing on. The film wants to display the patina of an edgy indie comedy-drama but there is never any real sense of life or authenticity to the proceedings--if Urban Outfitters were a movie, it would be “The Wackness.” Essentially, what Levine is trying to do here is offer up an audience-friendly and commercially viable version of one of the films of indie legend James Toback, the man behind such films as “Fingers,” “Two Girls and a Guy,” “Black and White,” “Harvard Man” and “When Will I Be Loved?” The difference, though is that every time that he has stepped up to the plate, Toback has been good enough to give viewers genuinely edgy and provocative works in which issues of race, class, sexuality and psychology (not to mention a libertine view towards illicit behavior and a genuine feeling for the streets of New York) are thrown together into messy stews that, whether they are good or bad, are nevertheless alive and kicking in ways that few movies are in these increasingly timid times. By comparison, “The Wackness” never feels like anything other than a slick movie that is trying and failing to pass itself off as something authentically grungy. (Throughout the film, I kept waiting for a scene in which our hero stumbles upon the location for Larry Clark’s “Kids,” which was shooting in the city at the time, and found himself at last finding a home amongst those equally unconvincing delinquents.)

The only saving grace to “The Wackness”--not enough to make it worth going to the movie but enough to keep your from clawing your eyes out if you are already there--is the presence of Olivia Thirlby, whom you most likely saw as the quirky best pal in “Juno” and whom you most likely didn’t see earlier this year as the new girl in town in David Gordon Green’s stunning “Snow Angels.” Thanks to the heat thrown on here by the success of “Juno,” she is quickly becoming Hollywood’s new indie It girl, but in this case, the hype is more than deserved because she has what it takes to be a star--beauty, humor and the kind of cheerful screen presence that would be enough to make me want to forgo my earlier stance and jet out to Sundance (provided that I wouldn‘t have to watch this film again)--and, as she showed in “Snow Angels,” she can act as well. As the teen temptress who wins and breaks the central clod’s heart, she has much less to work with here than in some of her other roles but she brings enough zip to the proceedings so that she is able to single-handedly rescue nearly every scene that she is in, with the exception of that aforementioned part where she has to talk about someone only looking at the wackness of life. If there is one good thing about “The Wackness,” it is that it proves that Thirlby is the real thing because it shows her ability to rise above substandard material and bestow upon it the kind of quality performance that it simply doesn’t deserve. And if there is any luck in the world, maybe James Toback will see this film (out of irony, if nothing else) and be duly inspired by her presence to write a role worthy of her talents. Now that would be something worth seeing--certainly not this film, which has all the pop and flavor of a Zima left open on a countertop since 1994.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16896&reviewer=389
originally posted: 07/11/08 00:13:56
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2008 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival For more in the 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 CineVegas Film Festival For more in the 2008 CineVegas Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

12/31/11 Melvin Aramis Martinez, Spacejerker.com My favorite film. 5 stars
8/31/08 Samantha Pruitt very good story, great acting, love the music! 4 stars
7/23/08 James I left the theater satisfied. 3 stars
1/25/08 bls the best of sundance - great movie 5 stars
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  03-Jul-2008 (R)
  DVD: 06-Jan-2009


  DVD: 06-Jan-2009

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