The WacknessWritten and directed by Jonathan LevineStarring Josh Peck, Ben Kingsley, Olivia Thirlby and Mary-Kate OlsenRated R*8.5*
Goes well with: American Beauty, High Fidelity, Ghost World
It would be easy to suggest that what makes The Wackness stand out from other coming-of-age films is the protagonist's line of work: He deals pot. But that's far too simple. No, Jonathan Levine's movie, set on the sticky streets of New York in the summer of 1994, works well because each of its characters is going through his or her own coming-of-age experience, illustrating the fact that none of us ever truly has that moment when we transition to adulthood. The Wackness realizes that even the grownups among us are simply muddling through every single day, hoping tomorrow won't be quite as fucked up as yesterday. The movie isn't about getting to the next phase of your life, because real life isn't about getting through to the next phase.
Things are tough for Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck), who considers himself the most popular of the unpopular. He's graduated high school just in time for his dad to bankrupt the family's bank account and put their apartment in danger. His safety college is just a few months away, and in the intervening period, he just wants to listen to some phat beats, smoke some fat blunts and sell as much dope as possible. It's hot and humid outside, and Luke is charming and sweet, if occasionally confused and/or self-absorbed.
His best customer is also his shrink—Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley) takes his fees in dimebags. What the psychiatrist really wants is Luke's lifestyle. He tags along, and as the two develop a friendship, Luke meets the good doctor's hot little stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), who's also on her way to college and wants to find a little something on the side for the summer. That something might just be Luke, the kind of shy, good-looking guy who's not so experienced with the ladies.
Of course, if he's going to learn the ways of life and love and heartbreak from her—and Thirlby, best known for playing the BFF in Juno, is terrific here—he's also going to have to face the doctor, who isn't thrilled about the two of them getting together. When odd couples are paired, a role reversal is often afoot, and here, the shrink confides in his teenage friend. And why shouldn't he? Just like Luke, Dr. Squires is getting older, but unlike Luke, he's now at a stage in his life when he has to worry about being the weird old guy.
Kingsley will always be best known for his Oscar-winning turn in Gandhi, and also for the wretched mobster he played in Sexy Beast, but his work in The Wackness is right up there at the top of his canon. He's funny and pathetic, and you never blame him for wanting to drop his patients to hang out with Luke, or trying to score with hippie chick Mary-Kate Olsen, or just trying to save his floundering relationship with his wife (Famke Janssen).
What Levine does so well is juxtapose Luke and Squires and their individual midlife crises. All this sounds serious, but The Wackness is terribly funny, too. And set in '94, it comes loaded with a terrific soundtrack and isn't weighed down by everything that's happened in New York since 2001. Also, Levine never delves into whether there are ethical or moral dilemmas when it comes to what Luke does for money. There's no judgment there. Luke's never worried about the cops, and sure, he occasionally has to deal with the heavy-hitting supplier, Percy (Method Man, who has turned into a sharp character actor). But that's not really what it's about or what Levin is exploring. Yes, it's a film about a drug dealer. But The Wackness is great because it's just about how hard it is to get older, no matter how old you are.