Rating: 3 stars
There is a great scene in The Wackness, a coming-of-age film about a teen pot dealer in New York named Luke (Josh Peck) who sells drugs to his depressed shrink Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley) in exchange for free therapy. In it, Squires, feeling estranged from his cold wife (Famke Janssen), takes Luke to his favorite old dive bar and is dismayed to discover that the bar is no longer a happening scene, but actually kind of desolate and depressing. Both Luke and Dr. Squires talk about their need to get laid—Luke for the first time, and Dr. Squires because he feels that sometimes it’s okay to cheat, but only when completely necessary. While the two are drinking beer and commiserating, hippie chick Union (Mary-Kate Olsen), who is one of Luke’s customers, floats into the bar. As Luke looks on incredulously, Dr. Squires begins to flirt with her. A few minutes later, it’s Squires, not him, who’s hooking up with Union in the bar’s vintage phone booth. Luke shakes his head in misery. He clearly can’t decide what’s more disgusting: That Dr. Squires is macking on a teenage girl or that he, Luke Shapiro, has no game?
That scene, funny, sad, slightly disturbing, is The Wackness at its best. But the film can’t sustain that delicate balance. It occasionally wears its “movieness” too loudly. Part of the problem is the goatee-sporting Kingsley, who seems so happy to play this philosopher-pothead-screw-up, he overacts with impunity. What’s more, an overly dramatic scene at the end—it involves a suicide attempt and lots of speechifying—suggests that the film takes itself more seriously than it should.
Nonetheless, there are some fabulous grace notes in The Wackness, which documents Luke’s curious outsider status: As a drug dealer, he gets invited to all the parties, but he’s on the outside looking in. When he falls in love for the first time, with Squire’s step-daughter Stephanie (Juno’s Olivia Thirlby), he predictably falls way too hard; he has no life experience to anchor him. The movie, which is set in 1994, also has some nice little period details—Luke hears Biggie Smalls for the first time and loves to make mixed tapes for his friends. He uses the word “mad” to describe every emotion: “I was mad tired,” “She was looking mad hot”—which rings true. And Josh Peck, yet another escapee from the Disney Channel acting factory, is a likeable lead—ably demonstrating how Luke’s chronic “chillness” is a mask to hide deeper feelings.
The Wackness seems rather explicitly autobiographical—writer director Jonathan Levine would’ve been just about Luke’s age in 1994 and he, too, was raised in New York. I’m not sure if Levine is a one-bong-hit wonder. Only time will tell.