Jonathan Levine’s debut feature, The Wackness, is like an after-school special where everyone does drugs instead of telling you how bad they are. It’s a coming-of-age story in the most predictable way, and while individual plot points are sometimes a surprise, the ultimate message is telegraphed from reel one. This is a movie with little to say, and even that is often said annoyingly. But who can deny the awesome pleasure of the Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff’s “Summertime”? Levine nearly redeems his non-story by harnessing the film to its era’s hip-hop, and against all reason I left the theater with a smile on my face. It didn’t last long, but it was a smile nonetheless.
The Wackness—as in, “I try and focus on the dopeness of things, and you only look at the wackness”—is the story of Luke Shapiro, a middle class Jewish kid in New York circa 1994. Luke sells weed to his classmates, his neighbors, a flighty ex-musician (the always welcome Jane Adams), and seemingly half of Manhattan. He also exchanges eighths for sessions with a psychologist, Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley). In the comfort of the latter’s all-too professional-looking office, Luke spills his burnout soul (“My life sucks” is a typical complaint) and Squires responds with equally inane fried-hippie blatherings, mostly about how Josh should get laid more.
Kingsley, here sporting a gray ponytail meant to scream “DEPRESSED MIDDLE-AGED MAN,” also gets to periodically pull a pipe out of his desk and rip bong hits on camera. Either this kind of stuff is funny to you or it isn’t, and I wasn’t laughing. The respectable-aging-thespian-acting-contrary-to-his-gilded-image shtick always feels a little cheap, whether it’s De Niro in Jackie Brown or Alan Arkin in the atrocious Little Miss Sunshine, another film that, like The Wackness, played fast and loose with both old-man vulgarities and simplistic feel-good schmaltz. Still, Kingsley seems like he’s having a good time with all the booze and pot and single entendres (his final advice to Luke at film’s end? “Fuck a black girl in college. I never got to.”), and he even gets to play "seven minutes in heaven" with Mary-Kate Olsen, here playing a completely unimportant neo-hippie who drops acid and periodically enters the action just to add another type of substance abuser to the mix.
Luke is a slightly more interesting character than those surrounding him, mainly because the young actor Josh Peck imbues this semi-lifeless stoner with a small degree of believability. He plays the role straight, with respect for the character and not a shred of mockery towards a guy who, if we weren’t following his every moment over the course of a summer, might seem irredeemable. His eyes are permanently coated with a stoner glaze, and he speaks in a type of slurred hip-hop slang that makes everything sound equally like a threat and a question. He’s also in love—in his own immature, hazy way—with Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby, Ellen Page’s friend in Juno), Squires’ stepdaughter. They share a brief summer romance that predictably means much more to the virgin Luke than the far more experienced Stephanie, and there are moments of actual chemistry and honesty in their trip through first kiss, first sex, and first heartbreak.
Thirlby is the real surprise here. She still has a high-school slightness physically, but she acts with enough confidence and charm that it’s easy to imagine her as the object of a classmate’s infatuation. She’s also the least hateful character in the film, despite being the inevitable pseudo-villain; Stephanie is the only person who’s not meant to be laughed at in some way, whether for their adherence to a stereotype or their drugged-out psycho-ramblings. (There are seriously moments of The Wackness that feel like an earth-toned Drugachussettes.)
Thirlby’s surprisingly nuanced performance in the midst of Levine’s hip-hop emotional hodgepodge is indicative of the entire film’s strengths; even as the script revels in its own cringe-inducing and self-aware earnestness (Squires tells Luke how clichéd his climactic moment of self-discovery was, even though Levine clearly stands by the sentiment), there’s enough goodwill and artistic potential on display to respect the enterprise. The Wackness didn’t move me, but I’ll predict that Levine will make good movies eventually. He has a sympathetic eye and isn’t afraid of pushing his story into uncomfortable, human places like the scene where Notorious B.I.G.-obsessed Luke expresses he’s in love for the first time.
Levine also understands the role of pop music in a young person’s life. Luke’s early daydream of fly girls dancing around him on the subway is a little heavy-handed, but when he leaves Stephanie after a long day together and the New York pavement lights up like the “Billie Jean” video, it’s an atypical moment of true whimsy that really works. Other more realistic details, like the recurring exchange of mix tapes as a rite of relationship passage, show that Levine has an unironic affection for these characters that doesn’t come through when, say, Olsen’s hippie dances in public and tells Luke he looks like Jason Priestley. Had he played to that strength instead of hammering home the cartoonishness of his chemically dependent New Yorkers, he might have made a good film; instead he made this uneven, frequently juvenile one. We’ll have to settle for the promise of a worthy career.
The Wackness, directed by Josh Levine. Sony Pictures Classics, Rated R, 95 min. Now playing in limited release.