The Wackness
Does pot make you imagine Fly Girls on the subway? Huh.

Theatrical Release Date: 07/03/2008
Director: Jonathan Levine
Cast: Josh Peck, Ben Kingsley, Olivia Thirlby, Famke Janssen

Have you been craving a return of 1994; Wanting to relive some interesting fashion choices, listen to The Notorious B.I.G. and wonder what crackdowns Giuliani will bring to New York as it’s newly elected Mayor? Me neither. Still, that hasn’t stopped the release of “The Wackness”, a big Sundance splash from writer/director Jonathan Levine.

Like a really twisted version of “Finding Forrester” or “Good Will Hunting”, the film is about a pot dealer (Josh Peck) who’s just graduated high school and his last summer in New York before heading off to college. His only friend is his therapist (Ben Kingsley) whom he pays off with weed and the girl he’s looking to make moves on is oh-so coincidentally that same therapist’s step-daughter (Olivia Thirlby).

To no great surprise, the doctor/patient relationship that exists becomes much more complicated as Peck teaches Kingsley how to deal pot and in return, Kingsley tries to impart the knowledge to Peck on how to become a man, especially one who doesn’t make the same mistakes.

Right from the start, the film harps on the fact that the story takes place in 1994. Method Man plays a Jamaican drug supplier and gives Peck a copy of The Notorious B.I.G.’s new album. Along with a decent portion of A Tribe Called Quest, Nas, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince and R. Kelly, if you’ve been missing that era of hip-hop, you are in luck. Also, much of the terminology (‘Wack’, ‘Dope’) and constant allusions to Giuliani will make sure you don’t forget what year it is.

But I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. The movie is supposed to be about Peck’s journey into manhood and the crazy speed bumps along the way – via Kingsley, Thirlby and cameos by Aaron Yoo (apparently the go-to Asian slacker of the moment) and even Mark-Kate Olsen as a drugged out hippie wannabe. Having all of these different characters involved and also throwing in 1994 references around every corner gets old fairly quickly.

It’s not that the acting isn’t pretty good. Peck does a decent job at being the disenfranchised youth struggling to experience life on the verge of adulthood, Kingsley seems to revel in his character’s flaws and Thirlby’s portrayal as a girl looking for little more than distraction for the summer is fairly spot-on (reminding me peripherally of a girl I knew during the mid-90s).

Since I graduated high school just a year after this took place, many of the themes, music and character archetypes were very familiar and I found myself using the film as a touchstone for events far behind me now. On that level, “The Wackness” worked. The screening audience I was with was often laughing at the tactless attitude towards people that Peck displays and Kingsley’s foibles but the jokes stopped working on me since they all seemed like repetitive versions of the ones used from the beginning.

Also not garnering favor from me is the last third of the film. As characters’ fates are becoming more and more apparent, it became less and less clear to me that any substantive change had occurred for either Peck or Kingsley. The changes were more so about their locations and people in their direct vicinity, not about any true evolution of characters. And the ending could only have been cheesier and more contrived with a layer of mozzarella and a Celine Dion song on top.

So, while much of the film resonated tonally with my own experiences, that doesn’t mean I’m going to automatically recommend it. The acting and production design are good … the story could have been more realistic and I would have preferred certain characters remain more consistent in their actions. All in all, I’m afraid I’m treating the film like it’s title, delivering “The Wackness” a 2 out of 5. It fell short of making good on its setup and spent far too much time using 1994 as a cheap joke or way to transition scenes. If all you want is a look back at the time period, maybe this is enough for you … but don’t say I didn’t warn you to keep your expectations on the lower side.