Take the intergenerational friendship of Rushmore, the unchecked adolescent mischief of KIDS, and the romantic yearning of any dozen teen movies, and you get The Wackness. Almost. The Wackness is greater than the sum of its parts, a genuinely thoughtful, infectiously charming, coming-of-age gem that might be more aptly called (to use its own dated urban patois): The Dopeness. New York City, Summer 1994. Luke (Josh Peck) deals weed. He’s an Upper East Side kid with Brooklyn sensibilities: hates his much-more-affluent schoolmates, loves Biggie Smalls. His only agenda for summer is to work, visit his shrink/client/friend Dr. Squires (Sir Ben Kingsley), and hopefully score with Squires’s too-cool stepdaughter, Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby).
Surprisingly, it’s his friendship with the middle-aged Squires that proves the warm, dynamic center of the film. Few movies dare this kind of relationship, though here writer/director Jonathan Levine makes it look easy. Luke has no friends and a disinterested father. Kingsley’s psychiatrist is a pill-popping, mercurial Peter Pan who recognizes Luke as kindred: They’re both romantically unfulfilled, immature, and (technically) drug dealers.
The two begin chasing women together, but the doctor discourages Luke’s growing affinity for his stepdaughter, suspecting she’ll use him. Undeterred, Luke moves forward, and gets predictably twisted around by first romance.
The Wackness’s strength is its detailed characterization, and Luke is easily the most credible screen-teen to appear in ages. His studied, wisenheimer surface-cool belies an authentic romanticism and vulnerability. Before expressing his feelings to Stephanie, he rehearses lines, vacillating between “I love you” and “I got mad love for you shorty, that’s on the reals!” When he’s frustrated by her put-off reaction, we get Luke’s POV with a permanently raised middle finger in the center of the frame. It’s a simple, but ingeniously successful device.
Levine also succeeds in mirroring Luke’s shifting emotional tides with a Manhattan that is itself transforming. The year 1994 marked Rudy Guiliani’s first year as mayor, and his relentless enforcement of “quality-of-life” laws was rapidly changing the city’s character. Levine, who grew up in New York, clearly pines for the old, un-policed freedom of the pre-Guiliani era, and The Wackness is shot through with a wistful, elegiac tone that is as much about his lost city as it is Luke’s lost innocence.
On the opposite end of the tonal spectrum is the latest work from the Duplass Brothers, Baghead, a film which contrasts the vulgar present with The Wackness’s honeyed past. The story: Four struggling, delusional actors repair to a secluded cabin in the woods hoping to generate a high concept screenplay in which they plan on starring. “Before we go to sleep, we’ll all come up with the plot!” one moronically ventures.
Wholly unimaginative, they concoct a slasher premise involving the eponymous masked killer. But before they can write the first scene, life quickly (and blandly) imitates art, and the group find themselves being stalked by a real, knife-wielding “Baghead.”
The Duplass Brothers know this is trite material. That the scared-kids-in-the-woods scenario is the most shopworn of micro-budget ideas is presumably why they chose it. But given this, one rightly expects a meta-film of sorts, a send-up or deconstruction. No such unpacking is attempted. Instead, Baghead relies on a lot of the standard “Gotcha!” tropes used in every Friday the 13th installment. That the end is not entirely predictable might be vindicating if it weren’t such a radical disappointment.
None of this speaks well for “Mumblecore,” the loose cinematic movement that emphasizes low-wattage performances, thin plotlines, and lots of hand-held camera work. The Duplass’s first feature, The Puffy Chair, fairly apotheosized the style, and was an effective, if grating, portrait of late-twenties anxiety. Here, the brothers move into more recognizable genre territory, and fare much worse. The aesthetic looks cheap and mercenary, without the justifying conceit of a film like The Blair Witch Project, which is a distant cousin. By the film’s end, it’s difficult not to think of its desperate, scheming subjects as stand-ins for the filmmakers themselves.