THE WACKNESS sss Written and directed by JONATHAN LEVINE WITH JOSH PECK, BEN KINGSLEY, OLIVIA THIRLBY, FAMKE JANSSEN, JANE ADAMS, AND mETHOD mAN
Adolescence is a stage of life when your problems seem unique not only to you but to your moment in history; adulthood is the thudding realization that they’re not only universal but timeless. So perhaps it’s appropriate that a coming-of-age movie, which chronicles a person’s journey from one state of mind to the other, should feel familiar. Watching The Wackness, Jonathan Levine’s funny, sincere tale of a Manhattan B-boy (Josh Peck) navigating an inappropriate relationship with his middle-aged shrink (Ben Kingsley) while falling hard for the man’s stepdaughter (Olivia Thirlby), I kept wondering where I’d seen it before. The answer came roaring up to me in a cherry-red Alfa Romeo, to the strains of Simon & Garfunkel: The Graduate.
If I were Levine reading this I’d probably hang my head, because few filmmakers have been able to crystallize the doubts of a generation the way Mike Nichols did with The Graduate in 1967. Rewatching that film, I was struck by how immediate it seems even after 40 years, whereas The Wackness, set in the summer of 1994 and steeped in the hip-hop sounds of the era, is colored by Levine’s premature nostalgia. (For more on 90s nostalgia, see Miles Raymer’s column in the music section this week.) But by changing the middle-aged, alcoholic Mrs. Robinson of the Nichols movie into a man, and centering his illicit relationship with the adolescent hero on pot rather than sex, Levine manages to give the story a new spin.
The Graduate may be the classic comedy of the generation gap, but in The Wackness the real chasm is between the sexes. Luke Shapiro (Peck) is a recent graduate himself—from high school, not college—and early in the movie Levine shows him accepting his diploma to conspicuously light applause. As Luke describes himself, he’s the most popular of the unpopular kids, and what popularity he does enjoy derives from the fact that he deals weed to his classmates. His most devoted customer, however, is Dr. Jeffrey Squires, a psychiatrist and friend of Luke’s family, who pays for his dope by giving Luke free therapy in his wood-paneled office on the Upper West Side. “Do you ever feel like kind of a fuckup?” Luke asks at the end of their session, as the doctor sits at his big desk firing up a bong. Stephanie, the doctor’s pretty, jaded stepdaughter, doesn’t bother to conceal her disgust for the old man. “Dude smokes more weed than I do,” she tells Luke. “It’s pathetic.”
Squires is a child of the 60s—probably one of those kids who identified so strongly with The Graduate—and he still seems very much like a child, prankishly dropping water balloons on pedestrians from the window of his office. If the generation gap seems to have closed between 1967 and 1994, that’s only because the adult characters have failed to grow up. At home Luke has to turn up his headphones to drown out his parents’ juvenile bickering, and both Squires and his wife, trapped in a dead marriage like the Robinsons, are darkly obsessed with the loss of their youth. When Squires counsels Luke, his advice is colored by envy. “Lucas, do you have any idea what I would give to be you again?” he says. “Get your heart broken, find yourself face down in the gutter, get your pulse up, make a real mess of your life, son!”
His words could’ve been lifted out of a draft of The Graduate. “I wish I was [your] age again,” Mr. Robinson tells the young hero, Benjamin Braddock. “Sow a few wild oats. Take things as they come. Have a good time with the girls.” The difference is that, in The Wackness, the grown-up decides to take his own advice. When Luke, hoping to connect with Stephanie, phones the Squires home one night, the doctor intercepts his call and recruits Luke for a “pussy quest,” dragging him out to a bar, where Squires winds up making out with one of Luke’s teenage customers (Mary-Kate Olsen, in a wacky turn as a beatific Deadhead). After the cops catch him and Luke tagging a bus stop shelter, the doctor’s juvenile reaction is to giggle and run. They get busted, of course, and in a role reversal typical of the movie, Stephanie has to come bail them out. (You may want to stop reading here to avoid spoilers.)
Both movies reach a turning point where the hero cruelly rejects an older character’s conspiratorial intimacy to pursue a healthier relationship with a woman his own age. “I’m not proud that I’m spending time with a broken-down alcoholic,” Benjamin tells Mrs. Robinson after she forbids him to date her daughter, Elaine. “This is the sickest, most perverted thing that’s ever happened to me.” Again one gets the sense that Levine might have written The Wackness with The Graduate playing on the TV in the other room: “Why are you even hanging out with me anyway?” Luke asks Dr. Squires after the two have clashed over Stephanie. “Don’t you got some friends your own age? Don’t you feel like a fucking weird old idiot just trying to relive your high school years ’cause you fucked them up the first time?”
Yet in The Wackness, Squires isn’t trying to protect his stepdaughter from Luke—he’s trying to protect Luke from her. “She’ll break your heart,” the doctor warns him. “She’s just bored.” You’re inclined to agree, because throughout the movie Levine portrays Stephanie as callous, uncaring, and cynical. When she first appears, at the graduation ceremony, she moves through the crowd in slow motion, dragging on a cigarette and looking like a hardened middle-aged woman. When Luke seduces her, confessing that he’s a virgin, she replies, “Don’t worry about it. I’ve done it like a hundred times—I can teach you.” And when Luke finally comes out with the truth, telling her he loves her, Stephanie replies, “Whoa, dude,” and walks away without another word.
In fact the movie’s last echo of The Graduate links Stephanie not with the tenderhearted Elaine Robinson but with her emotionally desiccated mother. One of the most dramatic shots in The Graduate comes when Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson say good-bye, their secret exposed: Nichols pulls back on the haggard woman, isolating her against the white wall like a corpse on a slab. When Luke tells Stephanie good-bye, Levine mercilessly centers her in the frame as her cool dissolves and she wonders what she might have passed up.
Ultimately that may be the movie’s Achilles’ heel: almost all the female characters are harridans, and by the end Luke and Dr. Squires have reconciled, united by their heartache. Compared to the famously ambiguous ending of The Graduate, when Benjamin and Elaine sit at the back of a bus, newly minted adults facing an uncertain future together, the conclusion of The Wackness suffers from a kind of arrested male adolescence. In a coming-of-age movie, someone ought to come of age.v
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