Talking Movies

September 7, 2018

From the Archives: The Wackness

Rooting around deep in the dustbin of the pre-Talking Movies archives uncovers the last (neglected) feel-good hit of summer 2008.

I mock Ben Kingsley with the best of them but damn it if he hasn’t succeeded in having the last laugh, again, as following his superb turn as an alcoholic hit-man in last year’s You Kill Me he’s once again godlike in a comedy-drama.

The Wackness deals with one summer in the life of Luke Shapiro, a friendless teenager whose parents are embroiled in money worries, as he frets about going to college. Luke is a small time drug dealer at his school and unrequitedly in love with the impossibly hip Stephanie. He’s also in therapy with her stepfather Dr Squires, who trades psychoanalysis for marijuana from Luke, part of his rebellion against the whole world for making him feel old.

Josh Peck as Luke holds his own against Kingsley. Who’s Josh Peck? He’s the Josh of Josh and Drake, on which he displayed an aptitude for physical comedy that rivals anyone else in the last 25 years – check out the scene where Josh and Drake attempt to get a job at a sushi restaurant and fail to keep up with the food on the conveyor belt despite their most frantic efforts… He’s almost unrecognisable here after a substantial weight loss and will surprise many by displaying considerable dramatic acting chops. It may also surprise that he’s playing a drug dealer, indeed during certain scenes this film feels like ‘Nickelodeon Gone Wild’ as Mary-Kate Olsen is frankly terrifying in a cameo role as a drugged out hippy chick.

Method Man is nicely understated in a small supporting role as Luke’s supplier Percy but you suspect his most important input was into the choice of soundtrack which is very mellow 1994 hip-hop and a joy to listen to even if you think you hate rap. Quintessentially 1994 is the hatred of the new NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his nigh on fascist crusade to clean up Times Square, which is the subject of a magnificent rant by a very stoned Dr Squires that ends in a hilarious Forrest Gump moment. Juno star Olivia Thirlby uses the part of Stephanie to get out from under the considerable shadow of Ellen Page and reveal she also can act. Stephanie is endlessly optimistic, “I see the dopeness of things and you only see the wackness” she tells Luke, but phobic of commitment despite her growing attraction to Luke.

This is a slight tale but it’s not possible to over-praise The Wackness’s gorgeous cinematography. You will not see a prettier film this year, under-lit in warm browns and oranges which create an entirely appropriate woozy feel to the action. Jonathan Levine previously directed cult favourite All the Boys Love Mandy Lane but this film deserves to be more than just a niche success, The Wackness really is the last feel-good hit of the summer.

4/5

February 6, 2013

Warm Bodies

Nicholas Hoult apropos of Shaun of the Dead’s marketing shows us what a proper ‘zom-rom-com’ looks like, and it looks much like any other rom-com.

WarmBodiesScreenshot

R (Hoult) is a hoodie-wearing slacker who lives at an abandoned airport, listens to his extensive vinyl collection on a private jet, slouches at a bar with his best friend (Robb Corddry), and from time to time shuffles into the city for some fresh human brains. As zombies are wont to do… Julie (Teresa Palmer) is the jaded daughter of General Grigio (John Malkovich), the hardliner entrusted with safeguarding the walled city. Sent into the dead zone with her boyfriend (Dave Franco) and best friend (Analeigh Tipton) to scavenge for medicine she’s ambushed by R’s pack, but he chooses not to eat her and classic rom-com structure develops. Will she love him when she finds out his secret is that he ate her previous boyfriend? And what exactly has changed in R that makes him capable of such human feelings?

So, how do you make zombies sexy? You don’t, you make them not zombies. A perfectly sound solution but you’d hope that someone of the calibre of writer/director Jonathan Levine (The Wackness, 50/50) would’ve gone deeper. Hoult’s voiceover is nicely sardonic, especially in his delightful scene-setting monologue, but if you’ve seen any episode of Dexter you’re wise to some of its tricks already. Corddry is damn good in support portraying seemingly impossible emotional ‘exhumation’, and Tipton has a wonderfully comic awkward exchange with Hoult in slacker shrugging. Palmer though struggles not to come off as simply blonde Bella Swann at critical moments… Ultimately Warm Bodies just cheats too much for its own good. Levine, in his first PG-13 outing, has to neuter the zombies’ appearance and behaviour, so that they don’t alienate with Romero-style bloody dismemberments of living human victims.

This is a difficult balancing act given the film’s brilliant innovative touch; that eating brains allows zombies to experience the memories of the human they’re munching on; powers the unlikely romance. Levine thus unveils a CGI version of Ray Harryhausen’s skeleton army as Boneys, the bad zombies who always eat people, and in one instance attack in a sequence lifted from I, Robot. At a certain point though the featured zombies aren’t really zombies anymore; more people who are so very, very, very drunk that they can no longer remember with certainty their own names or where they live, and find it equally challenging to think of things to say and then articulate the words intelligibly. Montreal is brilliantly rendered as post-apocalyptic wasteland but this is just an amusing rom-com – the power of love is the ‘cure’ for ‘zombieism’…

It seems George Romero’s heroes instead of going in for head-shots should have just stood with a boom-box over their own heads blasting out Huey Lewis and the News.

2.5/5

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