Merriam-Webster dictionary describes the term “wack” as being slang for lousy or lame. In my book, it’s an accurate enough description. The film The Wackness is a dope (literally) coming of age story with a comedic edge. In the hip-hop soaked streets of New York City in 1994, new High School graduate Luke Shapiro (Nickelodeon TV star Josh Peck) occupies his time slinging vast amounts of weed (dope) throughout the landscape. One of his main clients is Dr. Jeff Squires (Ben Kingsley) who trades Luke therapy time for his guanja. Luke is looking for love and it so happens, that Squires’ step-daughter Stephanie (Juno’s Olivia Thirlby) is one of the few recent grads who isn’t leaving home for the summer to party, so an opportunity may present itself. These are the main players in the crowd-pleaser that was the 2008 Sundance Dramatic Audience Award Winner.
Luke is a loner who seems to know many people but connect with none. When he starts to open up to Dr. Squires during one of his many weed brokering opportunities, the two begin to notice a potential to pick one another out of their respective ruts. They both share a common desire for sex (not with each other), though Squires’ warns Luke to stay away from Stephanie in this matter. When inevitably Stephanie and Luke grow closer, she tells Luke that he should focus on the positive things in his life, but instead he chooses to focus on “The Wackness”. Hence, the film’s theme is evident.
Squires and Shapiro’s storylines parallel one another in many ways throughout the film. Luke struggles with growing up and his troubled home life and really, those are Squires’ issues too. As Kingsley’s Dr. Squires starts to unravel with his marriage in shambles, there seems to be no bottom for him as he continues to sink further into troubled waters, medicating with more drugs to deal with the despair that he faces. It sounds tragic, but Kingsley shows a sense of humor here that he doesn’t get to exhibit often enough. Gandhi, this is not.
Directed by relative newbie Jonathan Levine this is a New York film through and through and it works on a lot of levels. Levine handles the story with a veteran’s steady presence but displays enough creativity to break the film free from predictability. The younger crowd gets Peck and Thirlby in a theme that should be familiar to them. Mature adults get Kingsley who delivers a solid performance by exploring a different type of character. Early hip-hop fans get small portions of the culture at a time when most critics considered it to be at its peak. This film reminds me some of another coming of age story, 2000′s Finding Forrester. Though Wackness is lighter in tone, they share a common theme with a struggling youth and troubled blue-hair forming an unlikely bond with one another.
This film has a top-notch hip-hop soundtrack, one of the best to hit screens in years. Sonically, it faithfully takes you back to that early 90′s era, with NY hip-hop stalwarts Biggie (RIP), Nas, and A Tribe Called Quest all represented. There are small performances in abundance from recognizable names here as well. Included in the mix are a hippied-out Mary-Kate Olsen and a Rastafarian Method Man as a drug kingpin of sorts. Boxing fans may even notice the small role by ex-Heavyweight Champion Shannon Briggs.
As both writer and director Levine handles the film with an assured confidence, owning the subject matter. There are only two real stumbling blocks in the film. The sub plot centering on Luke’s family troubles and their potential eviction fails to work in full. Too little screen time was devoted to this storyline for it to be truly impactful. Also, Famke Janssen (X-Men’s Jean Grey) who plays Jeff’s wife, is truly underutilized. Her Kristin gets to wallow in her own form of sadness regarding their marriage but she gets to show so little range that her outcome is too obvious for the duration.
As a whole, the humor in the pic tends to hit the right notes throughout, even if Kingsley often teeters that brink. When Luke is trying to tell his new flame that he loves her, he goes through all the different ways he can deliver the line, exploring options from the basic “I love you” to “Yo Shorty, I got mad love for you.” This is honest, funny and touching at the same time. It’s the type of moment where the script delivers and the acting ability of Peck stands out. He is one to watch and Levine knows what he has in him utilizing him to the best degree. Peck exhibits a spectrum of emotions in a film that at times could have gone the American Pie route in less capable hands. There was a depth and sincerity to his performance that you don’t often see from young actors, let alone those from Nickelodeon. Mr. Mariah Carey, Nick Cannon, I’m talking to you. In the end, The Wackness is anything but.