The Wackness

August 6, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Ben Kingsley, Josh Peck, Olivia Thirlby
Directed by: Jonathan Levine (“All the Boys Love Mandy Lane”)
Written by: Jonathan Levine (debut)

For a film that prides itself in its 90’s references, “The Wackness” has a lot more to offer audiences that just a look back to a music era featuring the Wu Tang Clan and Biggie Smalls. Even though they’re high most of the time, the smartly-written characters are the most redeeming part of this independent surprise from director/writer Jonathan Levine.

In “The Wackness” (which is apparently slang for the opposite of dopeness), Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) is spending his first summer after graduating from high school trying to figure out what he is going to do for the rest of his life. Set in 1994 in New York City, Luke spends his time dealing dope from his ice cream cart and crushing on his shrink’s stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby).

Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley, who can always play some great offbeat characters; see most recently “Sexy Beast” and “You Kill Me”), who doesn’t approve of his infatuation with Stephanie, really can’t use the fact that Luke sells drugs to deter the relationship. The reason: Squires trades counseling sessions with Luke for weed. Their interesting relationship isn’t in jeopardy despite the weird set-up. Luke and Squires need each other. Squires needs him for his pot and Luke needs him because he seems to be the only one that listens to him since his parents have been preoccupied with financial problems.

This makes for a very bizarre coming-of-age tale as both men use one another to grow out of their somber personalities. Squires’s middle-age crisis begins as his wife (Famke Janssen) becomes more distant to him. He finds physical satisfaction to ease his pain when he meets fellow hippie Union (Mary-Kate Olsen, who reminds me of Lisa Bonet’s character in “High Fidelity”).

As a stoner movie, “The Wackness” is presented a bit differently than the upcoming “Pineapple Express” or others of the past like the “Harold & Kumar” series. This one is character-driven and considerate of the relationships it nurtures throughout the film. Although it might overplay the nostalgic angle at times (the Nintendo reference is funny and the music does transport you back to the early ’90s), “The Wackness” manages to sail smoothly with some fine performances by its cast and a novice director who actually comes in with a reasonable vision.

Josh Peck – The Wackness

June 6, 2008 by  
Filed under Interviews

I’m seeing your career at a kind of crossroads from your role in Nickelodeon’s “Drake & Josh” to more adult-orientated films. Do you feel that’s where you are at right now?

I don’t know if I’m that conscious of it. I think I’m just at a more exciting time in my life. I’m just proud to be a part of something like [“The Wackness”]. I think it’s rare in life when you find something that you are truly, truly passionate about and people sort of validate those feelings. I’m just enjoying being swept up in the whirlwind.

Do you think a lot about the journey you’ve taken from a kid’s show like “Drake & Josh” to “The Wackness?”

Sure, I mean, I’ve been doing “Drake & Josh” for five years and before that I did “The Amanda Show,” so I really grew up with Nickelodeon and they have been very supportive. I’m really indebted to them because everything I am is because of them. But with something like “The Wackness” and years ago with “Mean Creek,” these are definitely films that are a big leap from a kid’s world. I just think I’m really lucky to do something like “The Wackness,” which is something that really speaks to my soul and something I can balance with “Drake & Josh.” I mean, I’m going to do a “Drake & Josh” TV-movie in August. There is a good balance there. But films like “The Wackness” turn me on because they really speak truth and honesty.

Yeah, you were great in “Mean Creek.” It was heartbreaking when your character was killed at the end but think halfway through the movie I wanted to kill you, too.

(Laughs) Aw, thanks man.

I’m sure that’s what you wanted to convey playing this innocent albeit annoying kid.

The reverence all goes to the director [and screenwriter] Jacob [Aaron] Estes and the way he structured the script and the character. It was truly an inside to a character like that who’s got this fierce defense mechanism of inevitably pushing everyone away and doing it so vehemently and being so ridiculously vulnerable. This kid George [Tooney] had to pile on these defensive spikes that stung everyone around him so he was left very much alone. It was a balance of him lashing out and showing the true side of himself, which was this gently and eventually defective young man. It was an important balance to have viewers hate him and love him.

When “Mean Creek” came out and now “The Wackness,” do Nickelodeon executives want to sit down with you and your agent and talk about this or are your TV-show career and your film career completely separate?

Nah, they are totally supportive. I think they are much more interested in how I conduct myself in my daily, normal life than when I’m portraying a character in a movie. I think with being on a kid’s show and being this sort of bohemian role model it’s much more important that you are conducting yourself well with morals and values that are in line with their thinking. It’s less about jumping in to play a character because you are given free range because it is art. Maybe you can hide behind the art, I don’t know. But I like the freedom to play these characters and let out any, maybe, subconscious debauchery in the acting and less in my real life.

“The Wackness,” of course, is set in 1994. You were only eight years old then, so what do you remember about that specific year?

Um, Bugle Boy jeans, Power Rangers and those Spice Girl lollipops. Yeah, I was only eight years old so it was kind of a time of a lot of exploration in my life, mostly in the sandbox. I had to sort of reinvestigate parts of my life that might have become dormant and think about what adults were talking about in ’94, whether it was “Pulp Fiction” or Bill Clinton or Giuliani. I really wanted to draw what they were exposed to because Luke [his character] is really a young adult in the movie. For the most part it was about me getting used to the essence of who this kid was and picking parts of ’94 whether it was a speech pattern or hairstyle or something that I could really hinge the performance on.

I’ve read that you feel falling in love is all about timing. Isn’t that a scary thought, to think that the right girl is in front of you but it’s not going to work out because she’s coming into your life at an inopportune time?

I think that’s a fear of my even before I get into a relationship. I’m just worried about being rejected, man. Unfortunately, relationships and putting yourself out there and being vulnerable it’s just life, otherwise you’re not living. It’s that pain that reminds you that you are alive but it also is a pain that makes you want to be not as alive. When a movie like this comes along – one that you almost need a prerequisite to have a certain amount of heartbreak in your past or something relative to draw from – you almost think you have some experience point even though at the time it is going on you’re not really sure if you are going to live or die. I think we all put a lot of walls up and want to be careful of getting hurt. I don’t know. I don’t want to sound all sappy but [love] is kind of all we have in life.

Yeah, I had heard that you were going through some heartbreak yourself coming into this movie. Can you tell me about that and how you used those emotions to your advantage?

I just kind of was out of my first relationship and a lot of those emotions were fresh and very deep-seeded. So, to have a person that I could use to personalize the “Stephanie” character was such a gift. When I first met Olivia [Thirlby] I just took one look at her and thought, “Well, I know who you are.”

Now, I’ve never been to New Jersey, so you have to fill me in. Why is it such a horrible place?

Aw, man. I talk too much shit, man. I really gotta close my mouth. It’s a beautiful state. I can’t really hate on it that much. Maybe I have just more of a beef with some people I know that live there.

Does Ben Kingsley go crazy if you forget to call him Sir?

(Laughs) No, not at all. We never spoke about it. I heard it was something he liked to be called so we all called him that. We all have some kind of preface to or a penname or a surname that we like – Sir Ben Kingsley, Method Man, the Commodore Josh Peck.

Jonathan Levine – The Wackness

June 6, 2008 by  
Filed under Interviews

As a teenager living in New York City in 1994, Jonathan Levine searched for a mantra that would encompass everything he was feeling as a recent high- school graduate living in a city that had just elected Rudy Giuliani as mayor.

During this time, NYC started to become a different place as Giuliani implemented zero-tolerance crackdowns across the city. Looking for a voice he could connect with, Levine says he turned to the hip-hop movement and found comfort in lyrics like, “Fuck the world, don’t ask me for shit” from Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die album. Although he knew they weren’t necessarily written for him, he was a restless soul and rap music became his passage to confront his teenage angst.

Flash forward 14 years and director/writer Levine has taken his memories of 1994 and injected them into “The Wackness,” a film that revolves around Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck), an 18-year-old drug dealer who trades weed for therapy with his shrink Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley).

Via phone, Levine spoke to me about music, movies, and video games.

When you start creating a playlist for this film, what music were you looking for?

There are so many wonderful songs from that era, so I thought, “Does this song have that nostalgic feel?” When you think about the song “Summertime” with DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, it’s all about barbecues and playing basketball until the sun goes down.

As an 18-year-old kid, did any of Giuliani’s new regulations to clean up the city affect you personally?

I got beat up less, which was good. I can thank [Giuliani] for that. Well, in any city, there is a pulse and energy. If you start making it more palatable for tourism or the richer portion of the city, you’re going to lose a lot of what living in a city is all about — the great melting pot of America. Yeah, some volatile stuff is going to happen, but you can’t deny it. And when you do, you in some ways crush the spirit of that city.

So, he did more harm that good in your opinion?

He’s gone through many incarnations — from a police-state fascist to a very beloved figure. It’s interesting because they’re both very accurate. He handled September 11 beautifully, and he really was amazing in that time, but it’s just funny that people forget on September 10, everybody hated the guy.

You took me back during the scene where Luke is blowing into a Nintendo game cartridge to get it to work. Were there any other ’90s references that you wanted to use that didn’t make the cut?

There were definitely more movie posters. We didn’t get “Natural Born Killers,” but we did get “Forrest Gump.” The Nintendo was in there from the beginning.

Was it difficult to decide what game to use?

It was always [The Legend of] Zelda. First of all, my cinematographer liked it because it gleamed n’ shit. In my own pretentious head, the quest that Link is on is the same quest that Luke and Squires are on.

I didn’t see any plugs for “Pulp Fiction.”

You know, at Sundance Quentin Tarantino was there and came up to me the last night and was like, “Where was ‘Pulp Fiction?’” I explained to him that ‘Pulp Fiction’ didn’t come out in New York until October, and the movie is set in September ’94. He was cool with that.

Have there been any other music movements since ’94 that have affected you the same way?

Unfortunately not. That was a watershed moment in pop culture because of all the hip-hop stuff and Nirvana. It was a very vibrant time. Now, there is just so much access to music you can’t help but find really amazing stuff. But when someone makes a movie 10 years from now about 2008, I’ll probably be proven wrong.