The Glass Is Half Wack: The Wackness (2008)

Posted by Charles Reece, July 5, 2008 08:42pm | Post a Comment

Wackness is about white teens in the first half of the 90s who say stuff like, "You only see the wackness; I see the dopeness." They're in their 30s now, so the nostalgia is ripe. It was the period when the classical tradition in rap was giving way to the method acting mumbling of gangster wannabes selling the “real” to undergraduates. In a nod to Vincent Price famously referring to the method actors as "the mumblers," either Big Daddy Kane or Chuck D once lamented the fact that so many of the contemporary MCs gargled into the microphone. Anyhow, the film's soundtrack reminded me of why I started to hate commercial rap (not that I needed the reminding). Each line Big E wheezes brings him one step closer to a cardiac arrest and me to the door.  But, in trying to see the dopeness -- this movie wasn't Hancock, after all -- I soldiered on. I will draw the line at Sundance films set in a Lilith Fair concert.

So, the story: Luke (Josh Peck) is a pot dealer who’s just graduated from high school in the first year of Giuliani’s Manhattan. This is one of those introspective comedies (à la Little Miss Sunshine) that dominate Landmark’s arthouse chain, so Luke’s one and only friend is his psychiatrist, Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley, supposedly a Brooklyn Jew, but looking like Cheech Marin circa Up In Smoke with an accent that slips into British, Indian caricature and Classic Hollywood Nazi). Luke trades the doc dope for counseling. Luke’s problems are that no one is his friend outside of wanting drugs from him and he can’t get laid. One such “friend” is the hip hop Asian character who functions as the foil for Luke’s romantic interest in Squires’ step-daughter, Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby). Another is nuevo hippie chick Union (Mary-Kate Olsen, the same twin – I checked – who plays the same character on Weeds).

As with Little Miss Sunshine, Charlie Bartlett and Juno, it turns out that adults have a lot to learn from kids. Doc Squires no longer loves his wife (Famke Janssen, who spends the entire film smoking and wearing a big floppy hat) and he doesn’t really have anyone to talk to either, except for his patients. Luke comes into his life at the right time. Squires self-medicates while telling Luke to face up to his life. The rest of the film involves both characters learning to live life as it comes, appreciate the dope, while living with the wack. Luke gets a chance with Stephanie, but blows it by saying he loves her. The Doc fucks up his friendship with Luke by suggesting a drug dealer isn’t good enough for his stepdaugher. The Doc wants a divorce but he’s afraid to go through with it. There’s a botched suicide attempt. The two friends make up by exchanging mixtapes (Luke likes Mott the Hoople and Squires even quotes Big E!) and Luke teaches Squires how to deal drugs. They both conclude that women are a necessary evil, and that which doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger (as was said by Friedrich Nietzsche and later confirmed by Hank Williams).

The exchange of mixtapes here is supposed to be a return to earnestness and a rejection of the irony that took hold of the popular arts in the 90s as the antifoundationalism of postmodernism seeped into mass consciousness. When all words only obtain meaning by deferring to other words, ad infinitum, and meaning is fundamentally linguistic (so the story went), is it possible to say what we mean? Is it even important to try? Luke makes a genuine attempt to give part of himself to Squires and his stepdaughter by passing along tapes of his favorite rap tunes. The metaphor is made literal when Luke continually calls Stephanie, reaffirming into her answering machine that he meant what he said, fighting the temptation to turn ironic. Dare to believe in your pop culture by sampling it to say what you genuinely want to say. As a re-recordable tabula rasa, the blank cassette becomes a perfect metaphor for the film's attempt to re-create the nostalgic glow of previous teen films by sampling their clichés, while recording over these previous efforts. But the quality gets a little more degraded with each new recording.

The problem is that film isn’t a return to any authentic human connection, but to the everyone-stand-and-applaud-the-outcast teen comedies of the 80s. Andrew McCarthy might’ve been earnest in choosing Molly Ringwald, but there was nothing honest about it. It was meant to make us feel good by playing into our paradoxical desires to be like the popular kids, but on our own terms. Wackness tries to recapture the earnestness of John Hughes’ wish-fulfilling fantasies for the ironic generation by following a downtrodden Duckie-like character, giving him the chance to sleep with the popular girl, as if that’s somehow more real.  It’s supposed to be more authentic because the relationship doesn’t last, so the target audience can keep whatever cynicism it learned from a decade-plus of ironic detachment while enjoying the myths of the previous decades the way those audiences supposedly did. Like American Graffiti, Easy Rider, Valley Girl et al., the fantasy feels more ethnographic. The further you get away from the actual times depicted, ironically, the more detached you are.

Relevant Tags

Wackness (1), Irony (1), Nostalgia (3), Teen Comedies (1), John Hughes (4), Mixtapes (3), Summer Movies (9), Cinema Criticism (32)