The Wackness

(2008) ** 1/2 R
99 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Jonathan Levine. Cast: Josh Peck, Ben Kingsley, Famke Janssen, Mary-Kate Olsen, Olivia Thirlby.

/content/films/3119/15.jpgA coming-of-age comedy of pot and psychiatry, Jonathan Levine's The Wackness has a certain distinctiveness on its side. A buzz-winner at Sundance, Levine's sophomore feature (the first to see release) runs a lap 'round the "Circle of Life" to demonstrate how a semi-shiftless stoner teen and his burn-out psychiatrist find themselves in the same emotional lane.

 It's 1994 Manhattan, Kurt Cobain is dead, and the lowlifes-including the teen and the childish adult in question-are all talking about the Giuliani vice crackdown. Drowning out his parents with hip-hop cassettes and The Legend of Zelda, drug-dealing Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck of Nickelodeon's popular kid-com Drake & Josh) ponders his bleak future after the next day's high-school graduation: "Then I go to my safety school. Then I get older. And then I die." 

It's this existential mire that sends the unhappy virgin to Dr. Jeff Squires (Ben Kingsley), who accepts Luke's weed in lieu of conventional payment. Clearly Luke's question "You ever feel kind of like a fuck-up?" hits close to home for a post-middle-age man who's losing his hold on his marriage (to beautiful, bored Famke Janssen). Since he's simpatico with screw-ups, Squires can speak with a certain authority to Luke about depression and horniness. 

Squires: I hate my wife.
Luke: I hate my parents.
Squires: I need to get laid.
Luke: We both need to get laid.

To underscore the men's emotional connection, Levine uses A Tribe Called Quest's "Can I Kick It," with its sample from Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side"-a musical bridge between generations. Squires serves as a crackpot surrogate father, the kind who'd rather be a friend than a parent—and yet if he's not a role model, he does offer semi-coherent semi-advice ("Men do the things they need to do to become the men they need to become"). The burgeoning relationship between the older and younger man becomes threatened when heavy-lidded virgin Luke becomes involved with the doctor's daughter, Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby of Juno), who has her father's gift of diagnosis. " I just look at the dopeness," she tells Luke. "You, you just look at the wackness."

Levine gives the film a grotty visual quality to match its substance abusers—dim to dark, with dulled colors—but also allows Luke an active fantasy life, including fantasy dance sequences on the subway and the street, which comes unexpectedly to life after a romantic breakthrough. As for Squires' outlandish behavior and Kingsley's theatrical performance, they're entertaining, but very hard to believe. The film lives more comfortably in the milieu of '90s youth culture, with its corny slang ("peace out," "yo," "word") and, at least in Levine's conception, romantic sincerity. As Squires puts it, the boy hasn't yet "been systematically numbed to the allure of romance," a saving grace as he navigates his way to a day worth seizing. That the elder Squires can learn his own lessons while imparting them gives hope for the rest of us.

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1

Street date: 1/6/2009

Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Sony sends The Wackness home on Blu-ray and DVD. Aside from a bit of edge enhancement, The Wackness looks great in high-def, with the Blu-ray accurately representing the film's theatrical look. Colors are true and detail is good, even in the frequent low light. The natural, film-like transfer is supported by a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix that likewise recreates the theatrical experience, nicely pumping up the all-important music on the soundtrack.

The disc gets a laid-back commentary with Jonathan Levine and Josh Peck. The duo joke self-deprecatingly, but they also recall how, when and where the scenes were shot, while also addressing Levine's script and characters and serving up Levine's personal reminiscences from the '90s and other interesting trivia.

"Keeping It Real: A Day in the Life of Writer/Director Jonathan Levine" (7:45, HD) follows Levine around as he does press on the day of the L.A. premiere. The featurette includes cameo appearances by Peck, Olivia Thirlby, and Ben Lyons, among others.

"Time in a Bottle: Behind the Scenes of The Wackness" (17:39, SD) is a decent behind-the-scenes featurette focusing on characters and the film's '90s period feel, with interviews with Levine, Peck, Sir Ben Kingsley, Thirlby, Famke Janssen, Mary-Kate Olsen, production designer Annie Spitz, and producers Felipe Marino, Keith Calder, and Joe Neurauter.

Luke Shapiro's Dope Show is an amusing recreation of cable access crapfests. Two brief outings are included: "Episode 1" (3:23, SD) and "Episode 2" (4:24, SD).

Four "Deleted Scenes" (5:12 with "Play All" option, SD) offer some interesting trims. The Wackness Trailers include "Theatrical Trailer" (2:13, HD), "Summer Teaser Trailer" (1:18, HD), "'How to Deal' Teaser Trailer" (1:39, HD), "Dr. Office Teaser Trailer" (1:22, HD), and "Time Teaser Trailer" (1:13, HD).

The disc is also BD Live enabled for bonus content available on Sony's website.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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