Monday, January 26, 2009

Gandhi Hits the Bong

The Wackness
DVD via DVDPlay

My girlfriend uses this one figure of speech that always drives me completely nuts. She says, "I always wanted to see The Wackness," and I say, how could you always have wanted to see a movie that came out six months ago? I can imagine someone saying "I always wanted to see The Godfather," but Hamlet 2? Apparently she has always wanted to see that one too. Always since August. Personally, I think "always," even used figuratively, has got to mean a fairly significant percentage of your life. Certainly more than a year.

Anyway, we rented The Wackness. It was crappy. You'd think most young film students would have seen enough thinly veiled autobiographies made by young film students before them to avoid repeating the same story about being a directionless, undersexed white male teenager. Nope, not at all. I'm not sure which is more useless -- Jonathan Levine's self-worshiping screenplay or Josh Peck's hugely unlikeable, witless lead performance. Levine has a complete lack of understanding of people who aren't exactly like him. The black, female, and adult characters in the movie uniformly sound the wrong note. What's more, nobody has an arc -- folks just show up and they are what they are. Mary-Kate Olsen is a druggy slut and Method Man is a drug dealer. Well, there's no law against typecasting. But what's the point of putting scenes for them in the film at all if they don't do anything or say anything interesting?

Ben Kingsley, the only real actor in the piece, does his best with a badly-written role as the lead's neurotic psychiatric adviser. He's actually given some stuff to work with, but for an annoying reason -- his character is just an extremely old version of the writer/director, in ludicrously extended arrested development. The lovely Olivia Thirlby (of Juno fame) gets even more harshly treated. As an obvious composite of all the women who broke Levine's heart in high school, her character isn't even a real person. She's simply a melange of all the stupid things high school boys don't understand about women, and the film's arc such as it is is so predictable that it's agonizing. It's not any mystery why Peck's Luke can't get girls -- he's an obnoxious, opportunistic twit.

It's possible to make a movie about teenagers doing nothing and learning nothing and have it come out great -- Dazed and Confused is one of my very favorite movies, and copious marijuana use is just about the only thing it has in common with The Wackness. The trick is to remember your Faces: "I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger." Richard Linklater when he made Dazed and Confused, and Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow when they made Superbad, had cohesive adult points and themes to drape over their aimless, clueless teen characters. They had respect for the women's point of view, and the wannabes', and the grown-ups'. Remember Mitch's mom, from the very end of Dazed and Confused? She has like five lines and she's a deeper and more interesting human being than anybody who wanders through The Wackness. The good high school films relate their characters' experiences to the larger world. The Wackness simply revels in navel-gazing. You get the idea that none of the characters except the lead seem real because the director using that lead as a proxy doesn't understand, or care, about anyone besides himself.

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