In a sense, I was relieved. I will always remember squirming through Dressed to Kill with my mother and my aunt, thinking it would be a “regular” horror picture. We all loved it, but there are certain things, like, you know, Angie Dickinson self-helping herself in the shower in the very first scene, that you shouldn’t have to watch with Mom. (“A mother who takes her son to see Dressed to Kill; that’s the kind of mom I like,” said Brian De Palma when I relayed this anecdote years later.) Then again, I was 15, and was prone to this sort of embarrassment. That was 1980; by 1990, when I was 25 and old enough to be teased and tantalized on my own, there was little to be mortified about. Though sex had made a limited comeback, a new rating was created for it by the powers-that-be, and it was safely boxed up again. (You remember the NC-17, don’t you? The one used once a year, like a bottle of floor wax?) The few movies that do let it all hang out tend to be infantile, perverse, or negative, and derisive or dismissive of the bare facts.
Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution eventually delivered on the sex score, but was too cautious and not lustful enough. Shortbus and Y Tu Mama Tambien are two of a handful of recent films I can think of devoted to the joy of sex, but the former was too unbridled and out-there to attract a larger audience, and the latter foreign-made. What’s missing are R-rated movies that treat sex as part of the American experience, and deal with it honestly. I used to blush at cinema sex; now, I’m chagrined at pseudo-sex scenes like the ones I saw in an upcoming indie release, where all manner of foul-mouthed behavior is indulged but neither partner disrobes beyond an undershirt for the bedroom scenes. It was as if the TV-safe version was being screened, or if I were watching it on an airplane. Who has sex like this? I agree that the restraint Hollywood was obliged to show in its Golden Era led to some hotly suggestive scenes (think of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Hitchcock’s Notorious, which Lee’s picture faintly copies) but we are not in the ’40s anymore. I half-expect to see twin beds pop up again in movie boudoirs.
Which makes The Wackness all the more welcome. It is not a sex picture. But it is a very human picture, with very fallible humans, and the sex scenes (two or three, but I’m not complaining) follow through organically. The young writer-director, Jonathan Levine, made a good, “regular” horror film, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, that has been in distribution hell since 2006; it has an interestingly languid pace, and a stylized look that suggests The Last Picture Show shot in austere color. This film has a similar, muted palette — the talented cinematographer, Petra Korner, used the bleach-bypass technique seen on Seven and other pictures for a Manhattan-in-1994 look, as the Giuliani administration begins to drain the character from the city. What a relief to find an independent release with a certain visual flair; most look featureless, as if the battles to get the script before the camera exhausted anyone from thinking about what to put in front of it. Rewardingly, there is savvy and heart to complement the eye.
The Wackness is a coming-of-age story; Levine’s, in a very loose way, save for the casting of Josh Peck as surrogate Luke Shapiro, a ringer for the filmmaker. The Nickelodeon star gives a shambling, dead-on performance as a recognizable type of late adolescent, adrift the summer after graduating from high school and a little too defined by his tastes — for Luke, hip hop (the soundtrack, with cuts from Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, R. Kelly, and The Notorious B.I.G., is a primer on the genre) and grass, which he deals from an ice cream cart. Peck nails the floundering side of Luke, with his ghetto slang, vaguely spastic movements and formless clothes, and petty crime spree. But he also shows us his hapless good heart: He hopes to use the proceeds of his dealing to bail his family out of a sticky financial situation, and anyone who has dated out of his league will relate to his forlorn pursuit of the better-bred Stephanie (Juno co-star Olivia Thirlby), who explains that she sees “the dopeness” in things, while he, in his weed-and-hormones funk, sees only “the wackness.” What Luke needs is a role model to straighten him out.
Unfortunately for him, but very fortunately for us, he’s stuck with Dr. Squires, his shrink. Strike one, he is Stephanie’s stepfather. Strike two, he accepts payment for his Fifth Avenue sessions in grass, the tip of the iceberg in ethics violations. Strike three, he is an even bigger kid than his patient, besotted with Stephanie’s mom (the delectable Famke Janssen) yet flailing in their marriage. When therapy doesn’t get much farther than the doctor asking if the patient is depressed over Kurt Cobain’s suicide, the two decide to spend their hours together making Luke’s rounds, to his supplier (played by Method Man) and a one-hit wonder (Jane Adams) who lives reclusively. Ben Kingsley is the go-to guy in indies, terrific in last year’s You Kill Me and better still in the forthcoming Elegy, where he bags Patricia Clarkson and Penelope Cruz. Here, iced-out by Janssen, he settles for snogging with Mary-Kate Olsen, as Luke’s Phish-following client, in one of many delightful scenes that the actor gives his all to. I wasn’t sure what to make of him at first. His accent is deliberately slippery, as if Squires wasn’t sure who to model himself after when he was Luke’s age, and never settled on a voice, and that hair: I thought the conical white wig he wore in A Sound of Thunder was beyond the pale, but the Byronic sweep here is a true follicular folly. Squires is an absurd person, whom Kingsley plays with great delicacy. Luke’s maturity hinges on him rescuing his therapist from his own worst impulses, and not the other way around; the beauty of Kingsley’s performance is that you see in Squires someone worth the effort. You get a contact high watching these two actors.
The sex scenes. It’s not giving anything away to say that Stephanie, who has Luke wrapped around her little finger, comes to see his dopeness, and that the two will hook up (though Thirlby, an unpredictable actress with a gift for off-handedness, keeps us guessing.) But the reality of his inexperience, compared to her self-assurance, conflicts with his fantasy of their first time together and it all comes crashing down in an awful sequence that is believably written, played, and directed. It has the failure of life to it. But try, try again — Luke’s second attempt is more mutually fulfilling. It’s a big deal for the character, but Levine doesn’t make it any bigger a deal than it needs to be for the film, and doesn’t art-direct it, like, say, Top Gun, with halos of light wreathing the rigidly positioned actors. Neither performer is humiliated. For their characters, the pleasure of the connection is enveloping and fleeting; for us, it’s totally dope to see an approximation of real life at its most intimate on the screen again. Funny, observant, and true, The Wackness is one of the best films of the summer.
The Internet Movie Database gives Catherine Breillat’s “trademark” as “dramas that explore female sexuality in a clinical, bleak style and with unconventional explicitness.” And how. In 1999’s Romance, the female lead is rogered with unconventional explicitness by a pack of studs including porn star Rocco Siffredi, whose endowment is even more formidable than my own. 2001’s Fat Pig gorges on rape and murder. Its follow-up, Sex Is Comedy, isn’t very funny — the French filmmaker and novelist, who turns 60 this month, is no one’s idea of a gagster — but showed a certain self-awareness as a female director (played by La Femme Nikita star Anne Parillaud) choreographs a sex scene not unlike one from the previous film. Siffredi showed off his talent one more time in 2004’s flaky Anatomy of Hell, a movie that even the Breillat faithful couldn’t fathom.
I’m not really one of them — that clinical, bleak style is like salt peter — but her candor is at least interesting. Breillat suffered a stroke in 2004 but has returned with The Last Mistress, which I figured might get my heart started again after a run of sexless pictures. Wrong: Breillat has gone all Dangerous Liaisons on me, with insufficient danger. There is sex, in nicer surroundings than usual as she tries the form of the period piece on for size. But it’s arty, skin-tones-match-the-pillowcases kind of lovemaking, by actors who could be brother and sister, or clones. And the rest of the production is pedestrian, with long patches of droning narration. The director has recovered from her illness but has at least temporarily lost her filmmaking voice.
With Mother of Tears behind her, Asia Argento plays something of a witch herself, as the Spanish mistress to a French libertine (newcomer Fu’ad Ait Aatou) who is preparing to give up his wicked, wicked ways in 1835 and marry a rich, doll-like beauty (Roxane Mesquida). Argento smokes cigarillos like an extra in a spaghetti Western and is meant to have something going for her other than her physical charms, but she doesn’t have the depth to show what that might be, other than a vampire’s low cunning as she attempts to outfox her rival. In and out of bed, the not-quite actress and the fledgling actor, who is too pretty for debauchery, generate static electricity. With its fossilized production, which emphasizes the gowns and the dining rooms (and no doubt the closet space, had it been set a century-and-a-half later), Breillat is something she has never quite been before: Boring. Figures: At a time when the cinematic sex scene could use some shaking up, a longtime provocateur is more interested in getting her characters into their costumes than out of them.
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