Welcome to New York City circa 1994, back when selling pot on the streets was as easy as vending ice cream and the Notorious B.I.G. was going to change the world. Jonathan Levine's semiautobiographical flick takes you into the life of Luke (Josh Peck), a recent high-school graduate spending a sweltering summer dealing drugs in order to get by. He's an "unofficial" virgin and loyal listener of cassette tapes, who describes himself as one of the "most popular of the unpopular" people. At 18 years old, Luke's biggest problem is getting laid, though his home life and lack of confidence also factor into his issues.
Luke soon develops an unlikely friendship with Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley), an improbable role model with marital woes, who goes from being the boy's customer to becoming his shrink. Both men are in need of friends, as they're not getting laid and are going through some kind of crisis (whether it be a quarter-life crisis or the typical midlife crisis). As Luke exchanges weed for therapy sessions, Squires finds himself reliving the teenage years he fucked up, and starts taking on the streets of New York with Luke at a time when a newly elected Rudolph Giuliani is cracking down on drugs, graffiti and rap music.
While the duo embarks on a "pussy quest," the more mature Luke takes a journey toward self-discovery on his own, falling in love with Stephanie (Juno's Olivia Thirlby), Squire's stepdaughter, who initially tells the fantasy-driven teen that she's "just a friend." When Stephanie finally returns his affections, Luke soon learns lessons of love, heartbreak and the real meaning of life and friendship.
The Wackness is a touching dark comedy, where sometimes it's right to do the wrong thing. Peck beautifully embodies Luke, a troubled teen and gentleman who feels the need to save everyone around him, proving this child star has come a long way since his Nickelodeon Drake & Josh days. By the end of the movie, you really start to feel for Peck's innocent and awkward character, finding him a likable guy you would surely call a friend. Kingsley also does an excellent job, adding depth to his role while also keeping the character fresh and funny. Don't expect anything like Gandhi, however. Instead, he practically molests a girl named Union (Mary-Kate Olsen) in a disturbing phone-booth scene. Although he may get only to second base, it's like witnessing statutory rape right in front of your eyes. Oh, and speaking of Olsen, this is probably her best role, playing a dreadlocked Central Park hippie.
Just like Larry Clark's Kids, The Wackness does a wonderful job of capturing the essence of New York during the '90s. The amazing hip-hop soundtrack driving the film - including songs such as "Summertime," "Can I Kick It?" and "Bump n' Grind" - works perfectly thematically and makes you want to go home and pop in your old Biggie or A Tribe Called Quest albums. This movie evokes pure nostalgia, taking you back to a time of pagers and mixed tapes.
My only beef with the film is that this story's been told before a million times over. It's your typical offbeat coming-of-age comedy: A teen has a few problems, meets an unlikely friend, loses his or her virginity and learns some of life's hardest lessons. It seems like Levine tries to bring his movie up to the ranks of like-minded indie flicks such as A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Juno and Garden State, but somehow doesn't quite reach that point.
Although the story's lacking a little and is slow-paced at times, its emotional core is there, and it still succeeds, thanks to its hilarious one-liners and endearing performances. Somehow, The Wackness evolves into this beautiful mess, and it's evident why the indie flick was a Sundance favorite.
The Wackness: Opens Friday at the Cedar Lee Theater, 2163 Lee Rd., Cleveland Heights, 440-564-2034, clevelandcinemas.com.
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