'The Wackness': A Bildungsroman, With Bong Hits

Ben Kingsley in 'The Wackness' i i

hide captionShrink Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley) believes in "self-medication," though not necessarily for others.

JoJo Whilden/Occupant Films/Sony Pictures Classics
Ben Kingsley in 'The Wackness'

Shrink Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley) believes in "self-medication," though not necessarily for others.

JoJo Whilden/Occupant Films/Sony Pictures Classics

The Wackness

  • Director: Jonathan Levine
  • Genre: Dramedy
  • Running Time: 110 minutes

Rated R: Ben Kingsley gets high and hits on an Olsen twin.

Josh Peck and Olivia Thirlby in 'The Wackness' i i

hide captionWhen not pining over Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), Luke (Josh Peck) peddles his wares through Manhattan, eschewing the average teen's summer job.

JoJo Whilden/Occupant Films/Sony Pictures Classics
Josh Peck and Olivia Thirlby in 'The Wackness'

When not pining over Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), Luke (Josh Peck) peddles his wares through Manhattan, eschewing the average teen's summer job.

JoJo Whilden/Occupant Films/Sony Pictures Classics

Jonathan Levine's The Wackness unfolds in New York City in 1994, and it's a weave of two fat thematic strands: a late-teenager's coming-of-age story — he's a drug dealer, so not your standard fresh-faced protagonist — and a portrait of a city and a culture in the throes of transition.

Those strands don't mesh, but the film has real wit and an undertow of melancholy; it wears its heart on its hero's baggy jeans. It's provocative enough to get you ruminating on whether we still live with the malaise Levine tries to capture.

The kid is named Luke and played by Josh Peck of Nickelodeon's excruciating (at least for non-tweens) sitcom Drake and Josh. At the moment, he sells pot — wheels it around the city in a beat-up ice cream cart.

There are no cell phones, so he's isolated, and he broods over his lack of popularity in high school. He's horny—"mad horny," to use his favorite adjective. Josh is one of those upper-middle-class '90s white kids who embraced the slang of hip-hoppers, appropriating the rage of the African-American underclass for their own ends.

Levine uses Luke's hip-hop lingo satirically, but he also suggests that the music is a life-saving outlet for his pain — as well as an alternative to Kurt Cobain, who just offed himself. Peck is too much of a mouth-breather — he doesn't need to let his mouth hang open all the time — but his passion suggests a minor-key variation on John Cusack's great Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything.

Luke's dad is going broke, his family on the verge of eviction, his only confidante his psychiatrist, Dr. Squires, a late-middle-aged hippie played by a weirdly cast (though very funny) Ben Kingsley. We're in the twilight of Freudian psychotherapy, when the rise of antidepressant medications is making this disillusioned doctor all but give up.

There's so much in this plight: Luke's self-hatred and pride in his own integrity; his therapist's cynicism — he gets pot from his patient! — and his vision of a better future for this kid.

That's before he knows that Luke has the hots for his stepdaughter, played by a willowy Olivia Thirlby — the second banana in Juno. No, it's more than the hots; he falls in love with her, and we see his crash coming a mile away.

There's a fair amount of bitterness toward women that Levine hasn't worked through; it's as if, like his hero, he still can't get over not being loved for his loserdom.

In 1994, the crack-cocaine epidemic was easing, and there are references in The Wackness to new New York mayor Rudy Giuliani's crackdown on "quality of life" crimes — sweeping the homeless off streets, running dealers out of parks. But as the non-love story goes on and on, the Giuliani subplot peters out.

The Wackness has what a friend of mine once called "the spread of nonfiction": It isn't shaped. But that might be in part because Levine doesn't believe in easy resolutions —certainly not after high-school graduation. Even that title has a haunted, unresolved quality.

The core of The Wackness is the bond between the bitter therapist and the kid who wants to sleep with his stepdaughter. It's strange, funny, off-putting and finally moving — a once-in-a-lifetime union.

And watching Kingsley stick his tongue down the throat of Mary-Kate Olsen as a free-spirited hippie — one of Luke's customers— at a bar is one of the weird sights of the year. Even the Queen might say, "Sir Ben, that is wack."

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