Owen Gleiberman shares his thoughts on a fun but half-baked '90s coming-of-age film and a doc about the greatest Canadian heavy-metal band you've never heard of
EW’s critic on ”The Wackness” and ”Anvil!”
When does an era, no matter how recent, qualify for nostalgia? When it’s portrayed with affectionate period-piece distance in a movie at Sundance. I still remember seeing Donnie Darko here and being shocked that the ’80s were now officially ancient history, and I got a similar jolting remembrance of things past watching Jonathan Levine’s The Wackness, a studiously offbeat coming-of-age crowd-pleaser set in New York City during the long-ago, far-away days of…the summer of 1994. The movie is dotted with time-specific signifiers (Forrest Gump ads on a bus, O.J. in the tabloid headlines, lots of jabber about Giuliani), but the most essential obsolete reference point — the one that truly defines this movie as taking place in The Past — is that it’s the last moment in the culture before cell phones.
That would be important, since the film tells the story of a teenage drug dealer; pagers and pay phones are part of his arsenal. Luke Shapiro is a swaggering Jewish kid on the Upper East Side of Manhattan who sells bags of pot, delivering them to people’s homes and hawking them in Washington Square Park out of a fake vending cart. Luke is played by Josh Peck, a swarthy, insinuating actor whose knitted brows and scratchy-voiced, mocking manner are reminiscent of Bruno Kirby and David Krumholtz. Peck plays Luke as a New York hip-hop kid, part of the first generation of middle-class white boys to make ”Yo!” and ”Peace!” an organic part of their vocabularies. The Wackness isn’t very interested in the details of Luke’s drug operation; we have no idea, for instance, how he got involved in it in the first place. The film skates lightly over these particulars because the teen-pot-salesman premise is little more than that — a premise. There’s a far more sentimental and — yes, I’m going to say it, I have to say it — quirky teen romance nestled within this tale of a dude who peddles the chronic, and socks away the cash, as innocently as if he were hawking ice-cream cones. Why do I use the dreaded Q-word? Because Peck’s shambling hero becomes buddies with his shrink, an ornery, long-haired pothead played by Ben Kingsley with an overdone ”New York” accent somewhere between Brooklynese and Hungarian. Kingsley has fun as this dissolute guru-codger, and the audience has fun watching him, even if he’s never a fully credible human being. He’s a real character (nudge, nudge), which means that we can relax and say, It’s only a movie. The Wackness, however, feels a little half-baked (no pun intended), because it has elements of being more than ”only a movie.” What I liked best about it is the melancholy grace of Peck’s performance. He shows you the sweet, virginal kid hiding out inside the outlaw poseur. It’s well and good for a filmmaker to try and make his mark by staking out Giuliani Time as the good old days, but when Bowie’s ”All the Young Dudes” comes on during the closing moments, The Wackness reminds you that real nostalgia requires you to forget before you remember.
It’s become a cliché to say that something is ”the real-life Spinal Tap,” so let’s get it out of the way: There are moments when Anvil! The Story of Anvil is the real-life Spinal Tap. The movie is a documentary about the greatest heavy-metal band you’ve never heard of — Anvil, a crew of Canadian headbangers who came up during the original demon-thrash wave of the early ’80s, playing on bills with the likes of Whitesnake and Slayer. Anvil were actually ahead of the curve: Their greatest early album, Metal on Metal, is credited with pioneering many elements of the speed-rock sound that would go on to be popularized by Metallica. (In the movie, Metallica’s Lars Ulrich says as much.) We see them in footage from a 1982 stadium metal-festival show, and yes, they’re pretty great. Their lead singer, Steve ”Lipps” Kudlow, scream-snarls at the audience with a viciousness that would make Paul Stanley blush under his makeup, and the band’s whole sound rockets forward with the new, hell-bent velocity that would help to make metal the dominant rock form for a generation.
And then…they went nowhere. The movie catches up with Lipps and his drummer cohort, Robb Reiner (yes, his name is Robb Reiner — is that karma or what?), as they go about their cruddy day jobs 25 years later in Toronto. They’re family men, and they still love to play, yet the predicament of being has-beens-who-never-made-it-but-know-deep-down-that-they-should-have weighs on them like a cosmic curse. The Story of Anvil traces their attempt at a comeback, and what makes the movie a real-life Spinal Tap without, necessarily, being a joke is that its joy is rooted in the cocky/befuddled personalities of its stars. Lipps, with his frizzy hair and the face of a snaggle-toothed angel, is capable of punching out a shady club manager (we see him do it), yet there’s an innocence about him, and he’s a casual master of metalhead conversation — the partying-as-destiny autodidact logic that’s so self-serious it can’t help but be funny, even if you believe in it. At 50, these guys are still ready for greatness. As they record a new album (the sessions are laced with more rock-sibling tension than there was in all of the Metallica doc Some Kind of Monster) and perform shows in places like Transylvania and Japan, we see that the dream does indeed live. Lipps and Robb could have been famous (they were gypped by fate), but The Story of Anvil takes the true measure of metal stardom: To be a legend in your own mind is to wield, rather than smell, the glove.