In the summer of 1994, newly elected Mayor Rudy Giuliani was taking charge of New York City; the hip-hop stylings of The Notorious B.I.G. were filling the air, and Forrest Gump was playing on the big screen. Jonathan Levine, writer/director of The Wackness, channeled all of those memories and more into his coming-of-age film starring Josh Peck as Luke Shapiro, an 18-year-old who spends his last summer before college trying to score with Stephanie Squires (Olivia Thirlby), hoping his family does not get evicted from its Manhattan apartment, and making sense of it all by trading pot for therapy with Stephanie’s stepfather, Dr. Jeffrey Squires (Sir Ben Kingsley).
Levine won accolades for his American Film Institute thesis film, Shards, and he called on that project’s cinematographer, Petra Korner, for The Wackness. Shot during the summer in New York City, the film includes a handful of stagebound scenes, but the location work sells the sense of three sizzling months of slacking. Korner employed old Baltar lenses to catch additional flares, emphasizing both a summertime glare and the veil of nostalgia. Underscoring these ideas, a number of scenes feature a golden wash Korner achieved with a digital grade, and the palette — which also includes the “hypercolors” of the 1990s and a noteworthy “Coney Island postcard” look for key moments near the Squires’ beach house — is well represented in this DVD.
The real heart of The Wackness is the friendship between Shapiro and Dr. Squires, and the filmmakers track the highs and lows of that relationship in the style of camera movement, moving from static frames to slow creeps on dollies before ending up handheld, and even in the costumes (by Michael Clancy) and production design (by Annie Spitz). When we first see Squires, he sits dressed in a suit and poised behind his desk, but as the summer wears on, he loses the coat, untucks the shirt and takes to piling up and tagging with a magic marker all of his personal property, in a devolution matching the downward spiral of his mental state. In a commentary track he shares with Peck, Levine discusses the subtler underpinnings of his characters’ evolution; the filmmakers reveal a natural enthusiasm for the craft, and Levine gleefully recounts the contributions of his collaborators.
Korner is not present on the DVD, but Levine highlights her efforts throughout his remarks, noting, for example, when lights needed to be rigged outside to combat the waning daylight and how a balloon light was utilized for a night exterior on the beach. The director also marvels at the music he was able to use in the feature (including KRS-One, Nas, the Wu-Tang Clan and A Tribe Called Quest), and the soundtrack is well served by this Dolby Digital 5.1 mix.
The 20-minute featurette “Time in a Bottle: Behind the Scenes of The Wackness” fails to offer much fresh insight, but it does present interviews with Levine and actors Peck, Kingsley, Thirlby, Famke Janssen and Mary-Kate Olsen; producers Felipe Marino, Keith Calder and Joe Neurauter; and production designer Spitz. The seven-minute “Keeping it Real: A Day in the Life of Writer/Director Jonathan Levine” follows Levine on the day The Wackness had its premiere in Los Angeles; it sheds no light on the film, but does a fair job of highlighting the “wackness” inherent in promoting a movie.
Rounding out the special features are four deleted scenes, five trailers, and two four-minute episodes of “Luke Shapiro’s Dope Show,” a faux public-access show in which the character interviews his building manager while the doorman riffs on a Casio. Though the episodes won’t yield much more than a chuckle, viewers should at least watch the opening sequence, a montage show Shapiro walking and doing push-ups, laden with standard-def tape-to-tape video effects that feel like a genuine time capsule. However, unlike the film, the “Dope Show” could never be more than a curio. Like any memorable period story, the movie’s themes are timeless, and that, along with seeing Kingsley with a bong, is what makes The Wackness so dope.