The first thing you should know about The Wackness is that it's not that whacked. Writer/director Jonathan Levine has made a very sincere and often enjoyable movie. But you can't just misspell a word and have your movie be automatically hip, especially when you believe in love.
Our young hero in The Wackness is, at least on the surface, not a very nice Jewish boy: Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) goes to high school, lives in Manhattan, and sells marijuana and crack, circa 1994, from an Italian ice cart (his cover job). He's college-bound, not bad-looking, and totally down with the homies and Rastas and uptown white kids (and their parents) who buy his wares.
Somehow, though, he's a virgin (hard to believe, but whatever), and he's got a pretty big boner for Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), the stepdaughter of Dr. Jeffrey Squires (Ben Kingsley), who is Luke's shrink, best friend -- he joins Luke for a "beaver hunt" -- and best customer. (Luke pays for therapy with drugs, and Doc lights up a pipe before a session ends.)
It's the summer after he graduates. Notorious B.I.G. is still around. So is the World Trade Center. As Luke tries to make Stephanie love him, Jeffrey deals with his crumbling life and marriage. (Famke Janssen portrays his wife, a cigarette-smoking, exercise-video addict.) One thing leads to another, but the bittersweet sentimentality of the drama doesn't permit many surprises, even though Levine keeps trying to throw us off with little dangers.
Levine's script for The Wackness is his best asset: Often it's flatly realistic, but then he whips out a bit of wit and insight. Jeffrey warns Luke about the unexamined life, and Luke replies, "Maybe the examined one isn't worth living either." When Jeffrey joins Stephanie in front of the TV -- we can't see what she's watching -- he asks her to fill him in. Dryly, she say, "Basically there's this big misunderstanding, and Mr. Furley thinks Jack's gay." That's more than just funny: It's a reminder of how routine any life can become -- not one damned thing after another, but the same damned thing, over and over.
For a movie about parents who share their kids' drug-dealer, The Wackness is tamely light-hearted and benign. Levine photographs it in muted colors, presumably to give some edge to his muted happy endings. But I'm not buying it. This isn't a very gritty film -- call it Gossip Girl on crack, literally -- and you never once feel like its characters are at risk.
It's not helped much by brightly colored comic-book script announcing each month in Luke's life-altering summer, nor by a few flights of fancy into his erotic imagination. The real eroticism is much more effective: The first sex between Luke and Stephanie is awful ("you didn't just come, did you?"), but later, in an outdoor shower at a beachside resort, their lovemaking is much improved. The progression feels natural, and Levine films that second scene with lots of heat and minimal exposure. (His actors seem unwilling to get too naked.)
The acting in The Wackness is fine -- Peck mumbles clearly, and speaks up when he must -- except perhaps for Kingsley, who's become more ham than beef. His accent wavers, not so much from New York to his native British, but from New York tough guy to a sort of pathetic lisp. Levine clearly didn't know how to handle him. Still, watching Kingsley bang Mary-Kate Olsen in a phone booth is something I'll never forget, despite every effort to try.
Starts Fri., Aug. 1.
- A guaranteed hit: Ben Kingsley takes a moment.