The Wackness

Here’s one way to look at it: Bong-ripping midlife-crisis Gandhi ruts in phone booth with baby from Full House; Nickelodeon tween nonentity gapes!

See, it has potential, right? Writer-director Jonathan Levine’s feature debut, The Wackness, might have been quite original and outrageous, had it decided to play itself out with tabloid-headline abandon. Or to deliver cinema’s definitive and long overdue subculture origin story for mopey mouth-breathing wiggas of the Upper East Side. Or at least to anticipate and satirize too-soon movie nostalgia for the too-bland middle ’90s.

But being a slacker picture after all, and wanting you to think it’s too cool to, you know, try, The Wackness squanders its potential, ultimately playing things safe with the trusty, Sundance-approved coming-of-age dramedy.

In Manhattan in the summer of ’94, teen virgin Luke Shapiro, played by the aforementioned tween nonentity Josh Peck, spends those precious, fleeting months between high school and safety school wondering whether he’ll get laid, worrying about whether his parents’ money troubles will get the family evicted, and selling weed from an ice-cream cart—or trading it for sessions with his therapist.

That would be the aforementioned Gandhi—Ben Kingsley, of course, about as far from his Oscared impersonation of India’s hero as the synthesized antics of Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams and Harvey Keitel can take him. Here he is the rather vulnerable, therapeutically questionable, strangely companionable Dr. Squires, whose wife (Famke Janssen) is halfway gone into her own haze of attitude and cigarette smoke, and whose dalliance with a random hippie chick (indeed, Mary-Kate Olsen) doesn’t help. The bud from his bud, however, might. Or does that just exacerbate his problems? Anyway, as the movie unfolds, the adolescent and the arrested adolescent will bond and become marginally more mature together.

The unfolding involves Luke being seen among plenty of hey-look period details (all affectedly shot by cinematographer Petra Korner in a soupy brown Polaroidish haze), stocking up from his Jamaican supplier (Method Man), and falling for Squires’ stepdaughter, Stephanie. As embodied by the perfectly fine actress Olivia Thirlby, who played the friend in Juno and has been overrated out of pity ever since, Stephanie seems like just the right kind of wrong girl for him; she doesn’t really mean to string her suitor along, but doesn’t really mean not to, either. “She’ll break your heart, Luke,” the shrink warns, in what is perhaps his most perceptive—and possessive—piece of advice. “She’ll get bored.” And so it seems.

Of course you see where this is going, or, indeed, where it already is. Imagine vintage Wes Anderson drained of the novelty and self-mockery, and instead of Nick Drake and Brit rock and Bartók on the soundtrack, it’s Nas and Biggie and A Tribe Called Quest. Yes, Levine would like to make clear his hipness to the era’s hip-hop; heaven forbid his characters give any credence to, say, Ace of Base, Soundgarden, and Richard Marx.

That’s as it should be. The music is what’s best about The Wackness, although the film also sort of wants points for not making a big fuss about its drug use — for being neither raging one-note stoner comedy nor thinly veiled PSA, but instead, like, whatever, just a movie, just like any other movie. Just like many other movies.

Which is too bad, because it knows it has something in the way Sir Ben goes at that bong and at that Olsen twin—a stunt, sure, but also the one sight to which Peck’s perpetually slackened jaw really is the right response.

Otherwise, beyond a vague little bit of Levine’s apparent unresolved hostility to the ladies, and a vague little bit of awareness about how coming-of-age movies are supposed to go, The Wackness doesn’t have any ideas. It’s what its poseur protagonist might call mad mediocre, yo.