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Film Reviews

The Wackness + The Quietus' Top Hip-Hop Tracks of 1994 Gallery
David Moats , August 27th, 2008 18:57

Dave Moats reviews this coming of age flick with a hip-hop soul and compiles the best tracks that didn't make it into the film

It was probably some time a couple years ago, when all the indie kids were in a mad rush to be the first person to wear a flannel convincingly, that I realised the 90s was making a comeback. In film especially we are seeing more and more nostalgic 90s set pieces and fetishisations of 90s icons. Clinton's presidency served as the backdrop for Ryan Reynolds love life in Definitely, Maybe. (I saw it on a plane, I swear to fucking God!) Kurt Cobain was given a saintly portrait in Gus Van Sant's Last Days and will likely get a Courtney Love sanctioned biopic in the not too distant future. It's not surprising really, the people who were young then are now old enough to make their own movies and have the buying power to purchase back their past. But while several movies are approaching the grunge scene, few have approached 90s hip hop in the same way.

The Wackness is the story of a sexually frustrated weed dealer (Josh Peck) who befriends an equally frustrated psychoanalyst (Ben Kingsley). The two begin to trade services, as it were, and form a strange bond as Kingsley attempts to relive his youth and Peck attempts to live his youth correctly the first time around. The film is set in New York in the summer of 1994, a crucial time in Hip-Hop: after gangster rap hit the mainstream but before its record sales surpassed that of country music in America; after Rakim made old school into new school but before Jay-Z became the industry standard; a time when Notorious BIG and Tu Pac were flesh and blood rappers not royalty generating enterprises.

1994 is not the golden age of rap, it's the golden age of white kids discovering rap.

The Wackness, however, doesn't really deal with any of that. The film wears the shiny tokens of 1994: Zima, pagers, 40s, Blunts, mix tapes, 8-bit Nintendo, like so much 'bling' (before it was called that). Period lingo is self-consciously delivered and the music is flaunted and name-checked: Biggie, Nas, Tribe Called Quest, Wu-Tang, etc. Method Man even makes an amusing cameo as a rasta drug-dealer. But no matter what the blurbs for this movie will tell you, 1994 is not the golden age of rap, it's the golden age of white kids discovering rap.

Writer / director Jonathan Levine, at least, is aware of this. Most of the film's gags involve Ben Kingsley or Josh Peck taking ebonics (before it was called that). There's also the constant complaints made by the characters about Giuliani cleaning up Times Square, as if it actually effects them. So even if the social context and, for the most part, black people are conspicuously absent, this is perhaps a more honest account for its limited perspective.

Yet at the heart of this fiercely 1994-centred film is a rather timeless character-driven story led by strong performances. Kingsley is typically magnetic and can be unbearably cringe-inducing when the script calls for it. Peck is a charming lead but at times seems to be trying so hard to act stoned that he forgets to act. In a way, the perpetually stoned character is the perfect everyman guide to lead us through the story. He is also the perfect foil to Kingsley's flawed shrink: his flatline demeanor makes him the blank surface on which the other characters, especially Kingsley, project their neuroses. Countertransference anyone?

The plot is heavy handed and simple but satisfyingly so. You wish your teenage angst wrapped up so nicely. Levine owes an obvious debt to Cameron Crowe. Just like Almost Famous, The Wackness's script is intelligent and witty enough to mask how unbearably sappy it is. Levine masterfully employs the following trick multiple times in the film:

character 1: [something trite]
character 2: That's totally trite, dude.
character 1: Yeah I know but I guess ..[something not as trite]

Notice how you feel outsmarted for falling for the first sappy line so you let the other sappy line slip by unnoticed. Cameron Crowe, of course, has made an entire career out of this technique.

Regardless, if you were young in 1994 (or had a mid-life crisis at the time) you'll appreciate this film as a great nostalgia piece. And like most 90s hip-hop you'll probably find this movie a bit of a guilty pleasure.

Speaking of which, we at The Quietus feel that the filmmakers may have missed a few gem's from that year. Visit our gallery below to see if you can do better...

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