Hip-hop culture is known for taking the dopest elements of its past and re-imagining them in a way that is fresh, exciting and appealing to a contemporary society. Kicking it old-school style is cool again, and a musical remix can be more fly than its source material. Writer/director Jonathan Levine's new film The Wackness understands its cinematic legacy, and that's part of what makes its schizophrenic style feel quirky and inventive rather than disjointed.
The film is set in New York City in the summer of 1994, and hip-hop is making its mark with artists like Biggie Smalls and A Tribe Called Quest. Sir Ben Kingsley plays Dr. Squires, the pot-smoking, self-destructive shrink of Luke (Josh Peck), who peddles weed out of an ice cream cart and pines for Squires' step-daughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby). Rounding out the principal cast is Famke Janssen as Squires' unhappy wife and a refreshingly dirty Mary-Kate Olsen as dreaded hippie Union.
Luke's unrequited ardor for Stephanie is not appreciated by Squires, despite his own complete lack of adult behavior in any other area. Luke and Stephanie ostensibly form a bond based on their love of music and casual drug use, but both feel stuck treading water while trying to figure out what makes them happy, and they use each other as a buoy to stay afloat. The approaching end of summer requires decisions about where the future will lead.
All the elements of The Wackness are familiar: the psychologist who needs therapy more than his patients, the music-obsessed loner and the leftover hippie. But director Levine remixes these characters in a fresh way that renders them sympathetic, rather than tedious or comical. Stylistically, the film veers between dry observation and sparkling sensuality, and this dichotomy works perfectly. Levine deftly straddles these two modes, creating a film as striking as a piece of graffiti: eye-popping art splashed onto a barren urban canvas.
Like any good remix, The Wackness sells us a new story while referencing classic fads. Early in the movie, we hear Luke deride Kris Kross and Pearl Jam while twiddling on the original Nintendo, and later we watch him walk away from a date with Stephanie on lighted sidewalk squares straight out of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" video. These cinematic winks remind us that whether your high school summers were spent trading mixed cassette tapes or e-mailing mp3s, both the disquiet and wonderment of being 18 is a era-spanning phenomenon and an integral part of growing up. Having a radical soundtrack just makes it a little sweeter.