Set in New York City, Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) spends his last summer before college selling weed, trading it with his psychiatrist (Ben Kingsley) for therapy, while falling hard for his step-daughter (Olivia Thirlby). Famke Janssen and Mary Kate Olsen round out the cast in this bittersweet coming of age story.
“1994 found New York at a crossroads,” says Writer/Director Jonathan Levine. “And it found Hip-Hop at its creative apex. I suppose I was at my own crossroads in ’94, for I latched onto this music and never let go.”
Levine imbues his Hip Hop chronicle with humanity and humor, not just hardness. He reports frustration without celebrating it, dwelling on the way life triumphs over grim circumstances rather than the other way around, often shining brightly:
When Luke lusts over a large breasted Latina on the subway, he plays "The World Is Yours" in his Walkman to envision himself the star of a rap video, scantily-clad hoes and all. But the train ride ends, and the line "I need a new nigga, for this black cloud to follow…” kicks in and the women vanish, ushering in reality—his parents fighting over unpaid bills and the threat of being evicted from their apartment.
Or when Luke meets his dealer (Method Man) for a warehouse re-up and Ready to Die blasts from the speakers. The boy’s mesmerized, stopped-in-his tracks awe at hearing Biggie rap for the first time is evocative of almost anyone else who can also recall how it felt. Although this is a white Jewish kid from Manhattan, certain things are universal, especially in Hip Hop. The film does a good job at relaying this commonality, and it should be able to extend it to the non Hip Hop community when it debuts.
It’s scenes like these that may very well make The Wackness an important milestone in Hip Hop: The culture is being used to compliment bona fide art without delving into self-parody. Though other movies touched on this idea in glimpses, none could seamlessly combine the soul of the music as organically the core of the story so smoothly. And while others have definitely come close (Brown Sugar did it for the 80’s babies) The Wackness is the first real movie to show what it was like to come of age in the 90’s with Hip Hop.
But it needs to be clear that this film is not a “rap movie.” Anyone expecting Beat Street will be disappointed. There are also some filmmaking liberties that New Yorkers may take offense to. Scenes blatantly shot in Brooklyn and Queens purport to be the Upper East Side and Midtown, respectively. For a film determined to be authentic—and being released in NY and LA—purists may balk at such choices. But such minutiae do little to detract from the plot. The film portrays the universal concepts of love, weed and Hip Hop, and how much it sucks to watch them go away. It’s a touching foray to a simpler time, back when things were either dope or wack, and you could make all that shit on a mixtape.
So if you can see the irony of "The World Is Yours" playing in a Ben Kingsley flick ("I sip the Dom P watchin’ Gandhi till I’m charged"), or realize that a character played by Method Man is listening to "The What," The Wackness delivers and is definitely worth a viewing.