Starring: Ben Kingsley, Josh Peck, Olivia Thirlby
Directed by: Jonathan Levine (“All the Boys Love Mandy Lane”)
Written by: Jonathan Levine (debut)
For a film that prides itself in its 90’s references, “The Wackness” has a lot more to offer audiences that just a look back to a music era featuring the Wu Tang Clan and Biggie Smalls. Even though they’re high most of the time, the smartly-written characters are the most redeeming part of this independent surprise from director/writer Jonathan Levine.
In “The Wackness” (which is apparently slang for the opposite of dopeness), Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) is spending his first summer after graduating from high school trying to figure out what he is going to do for the rest of his life. Set in 1994 in New York City, Luke spends his time dealing dope from his ice cream cart and crushing on his shrink’s stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby).
Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley, who can always play some great offbeat characters; see most recently “Sexy Beast” and “You Kill Me”), who doesn’t approve of his infatuation with Stephanie, really can’t use the fact that Luke sells drugs to deter the relationship. The reason: Squires trades counseling sessions with Luke for weed. Their interesting relationship isn’t in jeopardy despite the weird set-up. Luke and Squires need each other. Squires needs him for his pot and Luke needs him because he seems to be the only one that listens to him since his parents have been preoccupied with financial problems.
This makes for a very bizarre coming-of-age tale as both men use one another to grow out of their somber personalities. Squires’s middle-age crisis begins as his wife (Famke Janssen) becomes more distant to him. He finds physical satisfaction to ease his pain when he meets fellow hippie Union (Mary-Kate Olsen, who reminds me of Lisa Bonet’s character in “High Fidelity”).
As a stoner movie, “The Wackness” is presented a bit differently than the upcoming “Pineapple Express” or others of the past like the “Harold & Kumar” series. This one is character-driven and considerate of the relationships it nurtures throughout the film. Although it might overplay the nostalgic angle at times (the Nintendo reference is funny and the music does transport you back to the early ’90s), “The Wackness” manages to sail smoothly with some fine performances by its cast and a novice director who actually comes in with a reasonable vision.