Wednesday, January 7, 2009

DVDebuts: THE WACKNESS offers "dope" in several meanings of the word

One of those movies that received great initial "buzz," got trounced by enough critics to do some damage, and then was left at the starting gate by audiences, THE WACKNESS takes us back some 15 years to New York City in the days when, according to the younger set, things were either wack (bad) or dope (good). Jonathan Levine's interesting take on impairment (of family, friends, therapists, lovers) has its funny and charming moments but a true comedy it is not. And that is all to the good. Since it deals with dysfunction, and in a manner than is oddly believable despite all the exaggerated events in its hero's life, it is quite appropriate that sadness lingers over all we see.

The is Mr. Levine's second full-length outing (his first, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, never received a theatrical release and has yet to appear on DVD) and he fills his film with a constant sense of the very "personal." A teen's coming-of-age story this may be, but every cliché -- including first love/first sex and typical troubles with parents/classmates/drugs -- is given its own spin and so seems just different enough to be somehow special. Levine also gives his movie more darkness -- visually, metaphorically -- than is usual in films of this sort. Nobody is happy here, nor do any of the characters sense much chance for it. The world that lies just outside their lives does not seem particularly welcoming.

Though the cast includes a diverse array of fine performers -- from the always wonderful Jane Adams to Method Man and Famke Janssen, the movie belongs -- and rightly so -- to its three leads: Ben Kingsley (above right, who adds another funny and genuine character to his recent array of terrific performances), Olivia Thirlby (above left, who, after The Secret, Juno and Snow Angels, seems simply unstoppable) and especially Josh Peck. This young man, above center, creates a beautifully detailed portrait of youth on the brink: uncertain and cocky, hovering between depression and hope, alternately sexy and doofus-like. Despite the sterling abilities of the actors that surround him, it's his movie -- and he slyly shambles away with it.

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