THE WACKNESS

Rated PG-13
Reviews

Independent cinema has a long but not particularly interesting tradition as celluloid therapy, where young filmmakers work out their demons by giving us a dramatic, romanticized version of their own lives. Gosh, we feel happy for them. The press notes for this comedy-drama about a not-as-jaded-as-he-seems high-school graduate in 1994 Manhattan have writer-director Jonathan Levine talking about his similarities to the movie's hero. He didn't have to tell us—you could see it in a Manhattan minute without reading the notes.

Earnest but insufferable, The Wackness is like some movie version of a New York magazine article about city teenagers. Only child Luke Shapiro (Nickelodeon star Josh Peck, growing up against type) lives with his parents in an Upper East Side apartment—though it's clear from the decor, floor plan and circumstances that it's not Park Avenue East Side but rent-stabilized high-rise East Side. Mom (Talia Balsam, Martin's daughter) and Dad (David Wohl) do well enough (till later in the film) that Josh attends what appears to be a private parochial school. Josh himself earns spending money by pushing around a dilapidated Italian ices cart from which he dispenses pot. It's one of the movie's failings that it makes a big deal of being set during what the characters keep calling the repressive Rudolph Giuliani mayorship, when sidewalk food vendors and squeegee men alike got the squeeze, and yet not a single cop ever notices the atypically non-immigrant ices vendor who doesn't have a prominently displayed license. And not once does a kid come up and ask for an ice. What New York City does this take place in?

Luke, who seems cool and collected enough, is nonetheless an outsider; rich kids buy their weed from him—sometimes pleading poverty and stiffing him—but don't invite him to their parties. This doesn't keep him from eyeing one particular rich kid, Stephanie (a terrifically natural Olivia Thirlby, acres away from her equally sharp role as Ellen Page's best friend in Juno). Thing is, she's the stepdaughter of the pothead psychiatrist Luke sees in exchange for product.

Said psychiatrist, Dr. Jeffrey Squires, is played by Ben Kinsgley doing a Harvey Keitel impression, and the result is neither pretty nor convincing. Yes, yes, Kingsley is a respected, knighted actor who won an Oscar 26 years ago and was great as a sadistic gangster in Sexy Beast. But, y'know, he was also the bad guy in both Thunderbirds and Uwe Boll's BloodRayne, so let's keep things in perspective—which is more than Sir Ben did in creating such an artificial eccentric of a character. And whether it was the character or the actor, Squires exhibits such non-connection with his wife Kristin (Famke Janssen) that the two seem in be operating in separate movies.

So does the script, which at some junctures, such as Dr. Squires' pot-peddling with Luke, seems like an odd-couple relationship story, and at others, like Stephanie giving Luke his initiation in sex, like a coming-of-age story. Theoretically, in the right hands, a film could be both, but that's just asking to lose the focus of the story. Here, there wasn't any focus to begin with.
A longer, 110-minute version won the 2008 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award.