Two troubled drug-dispensers - one a teen pot-dealer (Peck), the other a much older psychiatrist (Kingsley) - hang out in mid-90s New York. Will their friendship help them resolve their respective lady-problems, or will it all end in tears?
With ’80s staples like big hair, neon leggings and depressing Cure anthems getting a bit worn out, it was only a matter of time before movies started getting all nostalgic about the ’90s. Eventually we’ll get a Kurt Cobain (or, gulp, Vanilla Ice) biopic; until then, this charming, hip but uneven indie is leading the way.
The year is 1994, the place New York. Posters for a little Tom Hanks picture called Forrest Gump adorn the side of buses, The Notorious B. I. G. rasps, “I’m ready to die and nobody can save me” from boomboxes three years before his actual murder, and a pre-9/11 Mayor Giuliani’s attempts to clean up the city are going down badly on the street. Through this landscape wanders the lead character, Luke (Josh Peck), a small-time dealer who literally carts weed around in an ice-cream wagon. He thinks he’s depressed; his therapist, Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley), thinks he just needs to get laid. Trouble is, the girl Luke’s into is Squires’ step-daughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), a fact he keeps secret from his mentor. The movie follows the evolution of these relationships — Luke and Squires, Luke and Stephanie, Squires and his cold wife (Famke Janssen).
While Peck gets most screentime, it’s Kingsley’s presence that has gotten The Wackness most press, and it’s easy to see why. There’s something intrinsically funny about seeing the usually buttoned-up-to-the-collar Knight Of The Realm kicking back to gangster rap, taking hits from a gigantic bong and snogging one of the Olsen twins. We’ll probably never be able to watch Gandhi with a straight face again. But it’s more than a novelty performance — after tosh like BloodRayne and The Love Guru, it’s great to see Kingsley off auto-pilot; he veers expertly between kid-at-a-school-disco exuberance, sadness and despair, dominating the film without ever resorting to ham.
The trouble comes when focus shifts to mopey old Luke. The title comes from one of Stephanie’s lines to her suitor - “I see the dopeness, you only see the wackness” - and she’s got a point. His maudlin moods might be an accurate representation of a Nirvana-era teen’s spirit, but it’s often less than thrilling to watch. It’s also hard to see why a girl like Stephanie would fall for someone so dopey, but that’s partly due to the aceness of Thirlby, who combines the low-key beauty of Sofia Coppola with sultry street sass.
Janssen’s icy Mrs. Squires is another problem spot - constantly smoking and slouched in glamorous but melancholy poses, she’s got as many dimensions as a Scottish Widow. Whenever the action jumps to her, you can almost feel the movie straightening up and trying to be serious. It’s a shame, because it’s at its best when it’s goofy, like a subway-car dream sequence with B-girl dancers, or Squires’ abortive attempt to break onto the graffiti scene. Despite its overreaching, The Wackness is an easy watch, with hazy cinematography evoking the feel of summer and a mellow soundtrack that lovers of ’90s hip-hop will go ape over. And it’s a definite improvement on writer-director Jonathan Levine’s horror debut, All The Boys Love Mandy Lane.
An unlikely buddy comedy that comes to life whenever Kingsley appears - he doesnt so much steal the show as roll it into a fat blunt and smoke it.