As It Turns Out, 'The Wackness' Is Largely Dope An adolescent drug dealer and a middle-aged therapist barter their respective goods and services — and former Nickelodeon star Josh Peck nearly steals the movie out from under Oscar winner Ben Kingsley.
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As It Turns Out, 'The Wackness' Is Largely Dope

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As It Turns Out, 'The Wackness' Is Largely Dope

Review

Movies

As It Turns Out, 'The Wackness' Is Largely Dope

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ROBERT Siegel, host:

Who comes out on top if you take an Oscar-winning veteran actor and match him with a teen TV star who made his name on Nickelodeon? Our critic Bob Mondello says the answer surprised him in the new film "The Wackness."

BOB MONDELLO: The year is 1994, and high school senior Luke Shapiro is in a sort of defensive funk as he introduces himself to the camera - lonely, though he won't admit it, and fatalistic in the way of teenagers everywhere.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Wackness")

Mr. JOSH PECK (Actor): (as Luke Shapiro) I don't need high school friends. One week they're listening to Kriss Kross, the next they're listening to Pearl Jam. I'm not like that. I'm loyal. I mean, I still listen to cassettes. But tomorrow, my life changes. Tomorrow, I graduate. And then I go to my safety school. And then I get older. And then I die.

MONDELLO: It's a life plan, of sorts. As played by Josh Peck, Luke's a pretty together kid who's biggest complaint is really that girls barely notice him unless they're looking to buy marijuana. He's a dope dealer, hoping to put himself through college with the profits. He has thousands saved up already. And one of his best customers is his analyst, played by Ben Kingsley, who trades him therapy sessions for weed. That's right, the doctor's receiving the drugs, not prescribing them, and sometimes smoking them during the sessions. Hard to say who's getting better value from that deal.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Wackness")

Mr. PERRY: (as Luke Shapiro) Were you popular in high school, Dr. Squires?

Mr. BEN KINGSLEY (Actor): (as Dr. Squires) Well, I wouldn't say popular, no. I played baseball. I was a debater.

Mr. PERRY: (as Luke Shapiro) Did you ever want to kill yourself?

Mr. KINGSLEY: (as Dr. Squires) Not till much later.

Mr. PERRY: (as Luke Shapiro) Then you must have been popular. I'm not.

Mr. KINGSLEY: (as Dr. Squires) This has got nothing to do with being popular, Luke. You're just not trying hard enough. You must think about in different scenarios, random sex in phone booths, chance encounters in discos, the way they smell, the things they say, even when they're saying nothing at all.

MONDELLO: As you may be gathering, Dr. Squires has some issues of his own. And if he knew that his stepdaughter was the girl of Luke's dreams, his advice might be a little different. Kingsley plays the doctor as a man in such midlife-crisis overdrive that you'd think he'd run away with "The Wackness," but Josh Peck - who began his acting career comparatively recently as a pudgy sitcom star on Nickelodeon - more than holds his own. Slimmed down since TV and oddly confident in Luke's insecurity, he dominates the proceedings with dweeby, open-mouthed charm - helped, no doubt, by the fact that this is a semi-autobiographical story from writer-director Jonathan Levine.

The filmmaker has blessed his coming-of-age tale with a catchy hip-hop soundtrack, characters who feel grounded no matter how odd their circumstances, and a girl worthy of Luke's dreams: Olivia Thirlby as the alluring stepdaughter.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Wackness")

Ms. OLIVIA THIRLBY (Actor): (as Stephanie) So how come you and I never hung out in school?

Mr. PERRY: (as Luke Shapiro) Because I was a loser. I mean, not like - not like a loser-loser, you know, I was definitely the most popular of the unpopular.

Ms. THIRLBY: (as Stephanie) Or maybe you were the most unpopular of the popular.

Mr. PERRY: (as Luke Shapiro) Maybe. Either way, you're mad out of my league.

Ms. THIRLBY: (as Stephanie) So, what? I'm (unintelligible) now?

Mr. PERRY: (as Luke Shapiro) Perhaps. You want a beer?

Ms. THIRLBY: (as Stephanie) Yeah.

MONDELLO: The Wackness may alarm parents who would prefer that their kids' favorite Nickelodeon stars not leap right into selling drugs and losing their virginity when they hit the big screen, but the story's not really about youthful indiscretions, anyway - more a tale of a young man struggling toward maturity, even as an older man struggles to abandon it. With that story and that offbeat friendship central, "The Wackness" will likely strike plenty of chords with plenty of audiences.

I'm Bob Mondello.

SIEGEL: Speaking of drugs and bad behavior, there is a new documentary out about the late writer Hunter S. Thompson. It's called "Gonzo," and you can find a review of that film at our Web site: npr.org.

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