On the dopeness of "The Wackness"

In this interview and podcast, director Jonathan Levine talks about how Holden Caulfield met Rudy Giuliani and Biggie in the heartbroken, heat-stricken New York summer of 1994.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published July 3, 2008 10:37AM (EDT)

Every decade gets its turn to be reheated in the Easy-Bake Oven of artistic memory, and with the arrival of Jonathan Levine's "The Wackness," the moment of 1990s nostalgia is officially here. This may be disorienting to those of us who were already adults in the '90s, but then the disbelieving reactions of older generations are part of the same process. Whether you graduated from high school in 1938 or just last month, the year in question will always loom large in your consciousness, most likely as the exquisitely poignant passageway from one life to another, redolent with the memory of that girl or boy who got away.

"The Wackness" revisits the sweltering New York summer of 1994 in loving detail. From a teenager's point of view, '94 was the year when the Notorious B.I.G. burst onto the airwaves and the year when Kurt Cobain put a shotgun to his head. It was also the year when New York's new mayor began to put his stamp on the city, and recent high-school graduate Luke Shapiro (played by former Nickelodeon teen star Josh Peck) may be more interested in Rudy Giuliani's anti-crime crackdown than your average teen. Luke is a shy, awkward kid, a near-friendless virgin who affects a hip-hop street demeanor and yearns to glimpse girls' panties on the subway. He's also moving fabulous amounts of gnarly Jamaican weed out of an Italian shaved-ice handcart.

Luke's parents (David Wohl and Talia Balsam) seem trapped in a slow-motion spiral into downward mobility, which may be an overly programmatic way of arguing that Giuliani's New York excluded the middle class. He hardly talks to anyone except his shrink, Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley), an immature, middle-aged shlub who trades therapy sessions for quarter-ounce bags of Luke's awesome ganja. But then there's Squires' stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), a skinny, brazen party girl who went to school with Luke, although they've hardly spoken. She's stuck in the city while her pals summer in Europe, Cape Cod or the Hamptons, and takes it upon herself to cure Luke of his hangdog demeanor. (It is she who opines, in what you might call the eponym scene, that Luke seems incapable of seeing the dopeness in life, only the wackness.)

Nothing about "The Wackness" is surprising, including the denouement of Luke's passionate but short-lived summer interlude with Stephanie. As Levine himself admitted in our interview, he's borrowed liberally from such archetypal big-city teen-awakening authors as J.D. Salinger and Philip Roth. Nothing is surprising, that is, except the fact that the film has a big heart, a core of sweetness and tremendous cinematic ambition. Despite what you may fear -- and despite the graffitti typeface, irresistible soundtrack and associated ancillary marketing -- this movie is a long way from hip pop-culture posing or generational smugness, and also a long way from the voyeuristic fatalism of Larry Clark's "Kids," although that's the obvious touchstone as to time and place.

As Luke, Peck plays the role of a kid who's always playing a role: Underneath the street tough who can walk calmly into the machine-gun-loaded den of his Jamaican connection (rapper Method Man) is an ordinary American teenager, full of romantic dreams and all too easily hurt. Although the film is largely realistic, Levine reveals Luke's internal world in a few joyous fantasy sequences: His lustful subway-car yearnings lead into a hip-hop dance number straight out of "In Living Color," and after his first night with Stephanie he comes dancing out of her apartment building, with the slabs of pavement lighting up beneath his feet.

I'll issue one word of caution: It tells you something about the weakness of American independent film in 2008 that "The Wackness" is emerging as one of the year's best offerings. It's a lovely movie that's likely to engage a relatively large audience, and it was clearly made in good faith and good cheer by a confident young director with a bright future. The spirit of the picture, I would say, is impeccable, but there's something approximate about its characters, dialogue and story. It's as if there's a great film waiting to be made about these people in that place and time, and "The Wackness" gets about, oh, 68 percent of the way there. (Kingsley's studied, mannered, tic-laden impersonation of a New York Jew, like so many of his recent showboat performances, is alternately endearing and distracting.)

Meeting the 32-year-old Levine in person made me inclined to forgive his movie's failings (e.g., the pointless-hipster casting of Mary-Kate Olsen in a small hippie-chick role) and focus on his clear affection for its ill-fitting characters and his unjaded, passionate vision of New York in the summer. (The picture was shot by Petra Korner, Levine's film-school classmate.) Let me not, o Lord, be one of those people who discerns only the wackness in all things! He met me at the Regency Hotel on Manhattan's Upper East Side, not far from Stephanie and Dr. Squires' fictional apartment building. Sadly, we had coffee and water but none of the fine green herbaceous matter. (Listen to the interview here.)

Have you run into any resistance about your title? Using such a specific slang term seems potentially dangerous.

Well, I'm not sure a lot of people are that familiar with it. Someone asked me about it in a Q&A after we screened the film, and I just say it's a term that was used to describe me in high school.

People are naturally going to think this is your first film, but actually it isn't. We just haven't seen the first one yet. (It's a horror movie called "All the Boys Love Mandy Lane," which has played several festivals and will be released this fall or winter.)

No! The other one is not yet out. It's very surreal. We weren't even shooting this film a year ago, and I shot "Mandy Lane" about three years ago. Such is life in the independent film world. I was doing an interview yesterday, and the guy said to me, "So, I just saw the poster for your movie," meaning the first one. I was, like, "What are you talking about, man? Will you send me the link?" It's pretty weird.

So is "The Wackness" pretty much your story? Did you graduate from high school in New York in 1994?

Yeah, I did. You know, originally it was taking a period that had not yet been nostalgized and getting to do that, accessing it through the lens of my own perspective. But after that, I started looking at everything that was going on that year, and the exercise of juxtaposing that year to the present was very interesting. That informed the setting, the time and the place. The more I thought about it, the more it felt like a culturally vibrant time. A lot of interesting stuff was going on. It forced me to ask some questions: Are we going in the right direction or the wrong direction?

Speaking as someone who was already over 30 in 1994 ...

You were? You look good, dude!

Thanks. I'm well-preserved. All the years of hard living have paid off.

In that case I'll be fine.

Tell me about the experience of being a teenager in that year. What was distinctive and memorable about it?

For me, a lot of it was informed by the music. We had the opportunity to listen to "Ready to Die" [by Notorious B.I.G.] or "Nevermind" [by Nirvana] or "Illmatic" [by Nas] or the first Weezer album. All this great music was coming out then. Especially the hip-hop -- that was what I connected to on a visceral, personal level. The music you're listening to really determines a lot about your memories.

Right. Well, as you make clear in the movie, that was the year Biggie broke out as a big star, and also the year Kurt Cobain died.

And I distinctly remember both of those things: I remember hearing about Kurt Cobain's death and listening to "Ready to Die" for the first time. Those two musicians actually have a lot in common, in terms of the ability to go to a dark place and speak about it poetically and personally.

Let's talk about Luke, Josh Peck's character. You know, he's dealing all this weed, he's hanging around with Jamaican drug dealers, he's in a bad situation at home, where his parents' lives are falling apart and they're getting evicted. But despite this setting, which on its face seems kind of depraved, he's really an innocent.

He's very innocent. He's a kid, that's the No. 1 thing. He's chosen an occupation that is not innocent at all, but he doesn't know any more than any other kids know. Writing that part was really fun, although it's difficult to put yourself in that head space. When he makes a mistake, he's not aware he's making a mistake. When he destroys any possible relationship with this girl [Stephanie] -- well, that's exactly how I handled that stuff. At the time, I was such a hopeless romantic sap. I just didn't get it. But sometimes I wish I could go back to that time. There's something nice about not knowing any better. He's just growing up. He's learning life experiences, forcing himself into situations where maybe other kids don't go.

In some ways he may remind people of the kids in "Kids," but only on the surface. He's not hard or tough, he just tries to act that way. He's a virgin, even if he tries to deny it.

He is, yeah, in spite of his objections. He's never done hard drugs. Growing up in New York, people tend to be like, "Whoa -- wasn't it so crazy?" But you can find common experiences with anyone who grew up anywhere. It's not all like that Larry Clark movie, although I did know a lot of kids like those people. I liked the idea of taking that setting and putting a character who's less extreme in that world. Most of the kids I knew were not having sex with 100 girls and shoplifting all the time. I wanted to take that world and put a little sweetness in it.

I was going to use that word too, so I'm glad you did. I guess you think it's a compliment, not an insult. I couldn't resist thinking there's a lot of Holden Caulfield in that kid.

Well, it's all "Catcher in the Rye," right? I mean, that's so seminal. There's a little of that, a little Philip Roth. I'm trying to steal from the best.

This movie has a lot of cinematic confidence, which is great to see. A lot of younger filmmakers may be telling interesting stories with great characters, but many of them don't direct with an eye toward the movie screen. You know, you could watch most of the mumblecore movies on an iPod and you'll be fine. This movie demands the movie screen.

I'm very happy to hear you say that. I had the advantage of going to film school with my cinematographer, so we had a shorthand. We watched a lot of movies and we kept saying to each other, "We want to make a movie-movie." I don't even know what that meant, but somehow we understood it. We were very prepared, and always conscious of giving it a big scope, beyond what you might expect from this story. On a macro level, we wanted it to have some of the romanticism this kid has in its heart.

I was feeling a lot of other New York films here. Maybe early Darren Aronofsky, and definitely Woody Allen.

Aronofsky is a great reference, but I think Woody Allen and Spike Lee were the guys who influenced me the most. For me, "Do the Right Thing" was the movie where I said, "Whoa -- you can fuck with people like that?" And then Woody Allen is the one who made the romantic New York. I mean, "Manhattan" is probably my favorite film.

Well, I can definitely see a similarity, in the romantic protagonists and their relationship to the city. They're totally different as to class and generation ...

But they have similar worldviews. And the ending of "Manhattan" was something I aspired to, that beautiful, heartbreaking ending. Well, I'm really glad if that comes through.

Talk about the fantasy sequences, when the subway car turns into a dance number, or when Luke comes out of Stephanie's building and the street lights up. I wouldn't call them surreal, exactly.

We had more of those originally. They're designed to convey point of view, and the movie is playing with point of view a lot. I'm really into that stuff, playing with form. I think it gives you an energy, even if it's kind of random.

Did you have the confidence to direct Ben Kingsley, like to tell him when things weren't working? I mean, let's face it: The difference in experience between you is pretty big.

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I mean, the good thing is that it was very rare that things didn't work. I think there were maybe two occasions. Once I stepped in and the other time I just kept doing takes, probably because I didn't have the balls to say anything. Certainly my No. 1 goal was to figure out how he liked to work and make it as comfortable for him as possible. A lot of times on set I'm like, "Whoa, I'm the director. I should be saying something to someone."

But I also think it's important to learn when not to step in. One of the things he liked was the freedom. When he showed up on set in his wig and shlumpy clothes, it was much less intimidating than when I talked to him in the trailer in the morning and he was all Ben Kingsley. On set he looked like a schmo -- much easier to talk to. I think he knew I was going to be nervous, so he made his best effort to be charming and disarming. Such a gentleman, such a respectful person. And he loves getting notes, but his instincts are so impeccable there were only one or two times we talked it through.

Did you have anybody in your life who was like Dr. Squires? The irresponsible older person who might have been more fucked up than you were. It's pretty funny, and also feels specific.

No, but it's interesting how many people connect to him when they see the movie. If I allow my id to go crazy and project it 30 years into the future, I think that's what that character was. I certainly am fucked up, so I relate to both of them.

As for Josh Peck, who's just beginning to make his name as an adult actor, was it tough to direct someone who's playing a character who's based on you, at least to some extent?

The last thing I wanted was for Josh to feel he was doing me. When we cast him, we went through the script and I'd say, "This is how I felt when I did this. What do you bring to it personally, what do you connect to?" He started imbuing it with his own personal experiences, and then he took it. Then it was his. I didn't write it with any person in mind, or any face or any type of look. Then when I saw him audition, I was like: "Oh. It's him." And from there on out he couldn't make a bad decision. The more he brought in his own personality and connected to the character, the better off we were. So it wasn't weird, actually. It was kind of awesome.

And then you've got Olivia Thirlby, who is suddenly this hot indie actress. She's this year's Parker Posey! She was in "Juno," she was in "Snow Angels," she was in "United 93," and she's got five or six more in the pipeline. But this is a tough part.

She's unsympathetic, yeah.

She's unsympathetic, she's the femme fatale, she's not just off limits to Josh's character, but also off limits to us. We never know what she's thinking, or why she won't return his phone calls.

Right, sure. And through all that Olivia does little things that allow you to feel for her. I think the fact that she was able to endow this character with a sympathetic side is a great thing. Because it might not have come off that way. And that's 100 percent her. Her instincts are as good as it gets.

Maybe this is a dumb question, but is this film's primary audience going to be people your age, people who have the same relationship to the mid-'90s that you do?

I don't know. I hope it goes beyond that. I thought about making it as accessible as possible. Hopefully it's for people who connect to the characters and remember that summer when they got their heart broken, because that audience is much larger. [Laughter.]

OK, listen, the statute of limitations has totally expired. So you can tell the truth. Were you a teenage pot dealer in Rudy's New York?

I was not. But I knew a lot of them, and they came to my house. I was a frequent customer.

"The Wackness" opens July 3 in New York and Los Angeles, with wider national release beginning July 18.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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