Jul 3, 2008

On The Wackness

Ok, I guess I’m never running for president (well, these days, maybe not)- I buy pot on a casual basis from a Jewish, Upper East Side dope dealer in his early 20s who, in order to protect the innocent, we’ll call D. D is articulate, with a fairly strong working knowledge of cinema and baseball, and although not unattractive, not likely to set the ladies on fire. In short, D’s not all that unlike the type of person Josh Peck’s Luke Shapiro, the hero of Jonathan Levine’s, The Wackness, a film that has been likened, buy more than one astute critic, as a potential Juno for boys of sorts, is supposed to represent. I can tell you one thing – his life ain’t anything like this, and it wouldn’t have been in 1994 either, Giuliani or not.

Although it wears it authenticity on its sleeve, there’s a point about fifteen minutes into The Wackness, poised to be the indiewood hit of the summer in a dreary season in which Tom McCarthy’s marginally effecting The Visitor is about the only specialty narrative finding any traction in the marketplace, where my bullshit meter, always at its most sensitive when watching a period youth picture, just about erupted. Method Man, who in his first truly dreadful screen performance, plays an armed body guard totting Jamaican pot distributor from Queens, one whom our apparently unpopular and friendless Upper East Side pot dealer hero (give me a break, look at this guy Josh Peck) would have had no way of crossing paths with if he wasn’t savvy and tough, adopts a Caribbean accent that’s worthy only of a Saturday Night Live sketch. When the movie finds itself ready to posit that these two are in business together, it immediately begins to falter on the plausibility front, a thing I suspect the filmmakers picked up on, as Meth’s screen time is pretty minimal and, aside from a nifty montage set to A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It?”, the film doesn’t try to delve too deeply into the actual mechanics of being a pot dealer, a criminal profession that can be rather lucrative, stressful, and unassuming, one that is often full for boredom and quiet desperation, although its never portrayed that way in cinema.

This is not a film without things to like – it’s extremely well cast, elegantly mounted and very funny at times. As the neurotic, pot smoking ex-hippie turned sour faced psychoanalyst who trades sessions for dime bags with Luke, Ben Kingsley is terrific, as good as his been since his legendary turn as Don Logan in Sexybeast, and Olivia Thirlby, as his daughter, who has a summer fling with the depressed, dope slangin’ leading man, continues her string of realty impressive, subtle work. She’s as dynamic and skilled a perfomer as any American actress under thirty working today. People like the ever radiant Jane Adams, Famke Janssen and even Mary Kate Olsen, as a mushroom dropping, dreadlocked blondie who ends up making our with the 64 year old Kingsley in barroom telephone booth, show up and turn in terrific supporting work. But as the bildungsroman clichés mount, we anticipate the various arcs of each relationship before they surface and this film, which has been trimmed by fifteen minutes from the version which took home the audience award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, begins to feel a bit over long.

No matter how many murals to Kurt Cobain we see or Illmatic cues we hear, one can’t help but feel that the film, which is always quite inviting and entertaining, lacks the soulfulness its aspiring to. Perhaps it seems beside the point, but the Upper East Side has no lack of its own suppliers for kids like these and I doubt anyone like Luke Shapiro would venture that far to be in business with a guy who has heavies with Uzis. Meth generically represents all the trappings of danger low stakes pot dealers try like the plague to avoid. The film needs a character for a rapper to play though, to lend it that much needed “authenticity”, that, of course, doesn’t really exist in the ecosystem in which films like this get made.

The carefully molded world of the movie is one of its major selling points for a large portion of the target youth audience that geriatric seeming Sony Pictures Classics is hoping it can lure with this sweet and sugary, yet oddly colorless summer of 94’ hip-hop fantasia. From the desaturated hues of its early and middle passages to the alabaster pallor of almost its entire cast, this movie is lily white, regardless of how many Nas, Biggie and Wu-Tang Clan songs can get stuffed into the final mix. Its no surprise the only black participant in this black culturally infused movie is Meth, making a mockery of himself, the gentle irony of his actual voice on a Wu-Tang song playing in the background of his silly scenes here just another reminder of the spirit and verisimilitude that the film, despite best efforts, isn’t able to extract from its antecedents.