August 1, 2008

Support System ; Unlikely Friendship Between Boy, Man Blooms in ’90s Culture


There are many assumptions about graduating from high school. It is assumed that you'll become an immediately responsible person. It is assumed that you'll go to college in pursuit of a fruitful career. And it is assumed that all your awkwardness will magically disappear, and you will become a confident, properly functioning adult. As Luke Shapiro discovers in "The Wackness," all of that is going to take some time.

Luke (Josh Peck) has gone through high school as a loner -- he deals pot to the cool kids but never really gets an invitation to hang out with them. As a teenager in 1994 New York City, he has little to no self-confidence, hates his parents, feels horribly sorry for himself and is a disaster with girls. His only real friend is Dr. Jeffrey Squires (Ben Kingsley), an old, drug-dependent shrink with whom Luke trades weed for therapy. As Luke longs for the affection of Dr. Squires' beautiful and popular stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby) and Dr. Squires watches his marriage fall apart, the unlikely duo find they have more in common than expected: trouble with women.

As a romance begins to blossom between Luke and Stephanie (to the dismay of Dr. Squires), the relationship isn't half as interesting as the one between Luke and her stepfather. The relationship between the young boy and the old man is one of trust and companionship, and is the driving force of the movie. Alone, both characters are immature and a little pathetic. Together, though still immature, they provide support to one another when everyone else in their lives seems uninterested. And on their path to somewhat happier lives, the trouble they get into is awkward and comical (a game of "Seven Minutes in Heaven" lands Dr. Squires in a phone booth with a young hippie named Union, played by a wonderfully spacey Mary-Kate Olsen).

While the film is clever and consistently entertaining, it has its downfalls. Countless movies tell the tale of a young boy who encounters heartbreak and has to grow up, and "The Wackness" isn't much different. Aside from Peck and Kingsley, few cast members actually managed to engage their respective characters in the story; Thirlby is just as funny and charming as she was in "Juno," but she fails to offer much more to the film.

On the upside, Peck shows off some serious acting chops, and is really the best part of the film. With his mopey demeanor and self- pitying ways, Luke could have easily been an unlikable character, but Peck's portrayal is genuine and will breed audience sympathy and affection for Luke.

Watching 1994 be re-created on the big screen is a lot of fun, especially for kids of the '90s. Appearances by Nintendo NES and the original Game Boy are comical in today's world of Wii and "Guitar Hero," Luke's marijuana-vending lends pagers and pay phones a major role in the film, and the '90s slang is hysterical. The much-hyped soundtrack is just as great as expected; I'm not a fan of hip-hop and rap by nature, but with tracks from Nas, Biggie and even DJ Jazzy Jeff, the music really brought the film to life. And while the "Giuliani is ruining the city" references are a little exhaustive, Levine's portrayal of '94 is spot on.

All things considered, "The Wackness" is, to borrow from the film's vocabulary, pretty dope. The coming-of-age story line is tired, but director Jonathan Levine's attention to detail gives it an extra bit of edge, making the film quirky, heartwarming and, above all, enjoyable.

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2 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

STARRING: Ben Kingsley, Josh Peck and Olivia Thirlby

DIRECTOR: Jonathan Levine

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes

RATING: R for pervasive drug use, language and some sexuality.

THE LOWDOWN: A coming-of-age story about a pot-dealing high school graduate in 1994 New York City.

Originally published by News Staff Reviewer.

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