Friday, January 16, 2009

Film Review #187: The Wackness
Director: Jonathan Levine
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Josh Peck, Olivia Thirlby

You might remember Robert De Niro as the drill instructor in Men of Honor, bellowing that line, willing Cuba Gooding, Jr. to his feet, “Stand up, Navy diver!”

George Tilman, Jr., hasn’t directed a film since 2000, when his Men of Honor portrayed the struggles of Carl Brashear, the first African American to successfully enter the ranks of deep sea Navy divers. So there’s plenty of anticipation now that his new film is about to open in wide release this Friday. That film is another biopic, Notorious, which relates the saga of Christopher Wallace – better known as The Notorious B.I.G. – and promises to vividly reanimate some aspects of the mid-90s Hip-Hop era. Notorious B.I.G. was gunned down in a rapper feud in 1997 at the age of 24, but in the summer of 1994 he was just exploding onto the New York City music scene and by that September had released his debut album, Ready to Die.

As a companion to Tilman’s Notorious, there’s a weird little movie just out on DVD January 6th that offers its own view of that sweltering New York City summer and the pervasive reach of B.I.G.’s music and Hip-Hop culture in general. The Wackness, writer-director Jonathan Levine’s second feature, opened theatrically last July to mixed reviews. Tellingly, the soundtrack CD release preceded the film in June - a classic compilation of tracks from B.I.G. himself plus Method Man (who has a minor part as a Jamaican drug dealer in the film), Faith Evans, Craig Mack, Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, KRS-One, Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, Raekwon, R. Kelly, Biz Markie and Wu-Tang Clan. The soundtrack CD leaves out the juke-box version of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” that figures as background in one bar scene of the film, but that may be just as well.

Such star power as The Wackness has derives from Ben Kingsley – not in his trademark shaved head but with flowing locks – as Dr. Jeffrey Squires, a private psychiatrist who barters therapy sessions for the product that marijuana dealer Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) sells out of the shave-ice freezer cart he amiably pushes around Manhattan. Squires has a weekend house on Fire Island too, which figures prominently in Luke’s education as the summer of ’94 progresses.

The film spans the months between Luke’s high school graduation and his departure for his “safety school” – the college application seniors fall back on when their first and second choice schools don’t come through. Over these heat-soaked several months, Luke and Squires become friends of sorts, rambling around night-time Manhattan, getting stoned together, talking about life – this runs to Squires’ urgent advise to live in the moment – getting arrested at one point, and looking for girls. (Ben Kinsley making out with a blond dread-locked Mary-Kate Olsen in a bar’s phone booth is one of the creepier May-December screen duos within memory).

Both their lives undergo quiet but seismic shifts. In a scary economic climate reminiscent of today’s, Luke’s father losses his investments and the family’s eviction from the upper West Side rudely catapults them across the river to bunk in with Luke’s New Jersey grandmother. Shapiro and his wife Kristin (Famke Janssen) mutually decide to divorce after an excruciating get-away weekend. Then there is Squires’ step-daughter, Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), the lovely, self-possessed girl who never noticed Luke all through high school and now has the summer on her hands. This starts hopefully enough – she’s gentle with his inexperience – but you needn’t be world-weary to soon know how it ends. He watches her run through the Fire Island surf, practices how he’ll inflect “I love you” over and over and, when he tells her, she retorts, “Grow up.”

It’s Ben Kingsley’s best line here when Squires, understanding that sting, tells Luke afterward, “How lucky she would have been.”

Modest as teen-age heroes go, Luke has the makings of a genuinely nice man. The Wackness is best appreciated as a modest film. Not the tell-all Hip-Hop movie, it still catches how open the moment was - and how varied the audience - for this music’s arrival. Quirkily but not brilliantly shot, it illustrates how a certain dark tone and its high contrasts might lead a filmmaker a few steps more into graphic novel land. Not in the running for any performance awards, The Wackness still presents in Peck and Thirlby two young actors whose work will be worth following the next time out.

This review appeared in the January 15, 2009 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular film column reviewing current releases as well as DVDs both new and enduring. This review was the 100th edition of “Make it Snappy,” which began running in 2006.