Hollywood has packaged male adolescence, which knows no age limits, into a hot commodity, shaving off the rough edges of angst and ecstasy and reducing it to its most marketable appetites for sex, crude humor, alcohol and drugs. At its best the anarchic spirit and humor prevail, as in some of Judd Apatow’s movies, like Superbad. But despite the sophisticated pop references and hip wit, the characters and their issues in most of these films are indistinguishable from those in a typical Coors Lite commercial. Whatever happened to the romantic, fatuous and subversive souls of such 1960s films as The Graduate and If…?
|The Wackness | Directed and written by Jonathan Levine | Sir Ben Kingsley, Josh Peck, Famke Janssen, Olivia Thirlby, Mary-Kate Olsen, Jane Adams, Method Man, Aaron Woo, Talia Balsam And David Wohl | Sony Classics | 101 Minutes | Kendall Square + Coolidge Corner|
So it’s never too late for nostalgia for the '60s, at least on the screen. But is it too soon for nostalgia for 1994, the year everyone was taking Prozac, Giuliani was cleaning up Times Square, Kurt Cobain killed himself and Notorious B.I.G. released his first album, Ready to Die? Maybe not in Jonathan Levine’s version of that year, which he achingly, hilariously depicts in his autobiographical The Wackness. This is the stoner comedy that might make people take adolescence — and getting stoned — seriously again.
18-year-old Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck in what might become an iconic performance) has taken a summer job after his high school graduation selling pot from an Italian ice cart (so much for the Harleys in Easy Rider). Mostly, though, he indulges hopelessly in the kinds of Aquarian Age questions that really bug a guy, like, what does it all mean? Why don’t I have any friends? What’s with the parents? When do I get laid? His moods alternate between the suicidal and the transcendently carnal, the latter when he broods on his unattainable love, hot and icy classmate Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby).
What a bummer, as his shrink Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley in an exhilarating, if mannered, performance) might say. He’s the film’s ‘60s muse, a former hippie, now dissolute pothead fed up with his wife (how can you be fed up with Famke Janssen?) and his profession and still addicted to music like “Sunshine Superman.” Shapiro swaps dope for sessions in which Squires counsels him with bromides like “sometimes it’s right to do the wrong thing.” In addition to the dope, Shapiro gives Squires a mixtape of current hip-hop hits from A Tribe Called Quest and Wu-Tang Clan (the soundtrack is good to the point of distraction). And so they bond over music and bongs, but compounding the transference process is the fact that Shapiro’s beloved Stephanie is Squires’s stepdaughter.
Which brings up one aspect of the '60s and of male adolescence in general that never plays well — the misogyny. The women in the film come off for the most part as adored, treacherous, and cold-blooded. Another unfortunate but more sympathetic tendency is adolescent, '60s style pretentiousness: Levine’s occasional “fantasy” sequences only disrupt the naturalism of his lovingly detailed Manhattan. But Levine’s moments of genuine inventiveness and originality more than compensate for such failings, such as the fragile and beautifully crafted cameo by Jane Adams as Elanor [sic], a former punk rocker and current customer of Shapiro. With a woman like that, even losers like these guys have a chance.