I don’t recall people using mad as an adverb every five minutes in 1994 (“It’s mad hot out, yo”), but then, I wasn’t 17 that year, like Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck), the hero of Jonathan Levine’s new film The Wackness (Sony Pictures Classics). Like most teenagers, Luke is highly preoccupied with the trends of his day, which allows Levine plenty of chances to dust off his collection of early-’90s memorabilia: high-tops and slip dresses, chronic and Zima, Wu-Tang Clan and the Notorious B.I.G. The Wackness may not have much that’s new to say about being 17—it’s a fairly standard coming-of-age drama with a couple of noteworthy performances—but it’s a definitive compendium of trivia about 1994 (by Levine’s lights, the best year ever).
It’s the summer between Luke’s graduation from high school and his first semester at an unnamed “safety school,” and he’s making ends meet by pushing an ice cream cart around New York City stocked with bundles of top-grade marijuana. Luke’s parents, shadowy figures played by Talia Balsam and David Wohl, are immature squabblers whose fiscal irresponsibility is about to get them evicted from their Upper East Side apartment. Luke and his shrink, Dr. Jeffery Squires (Ben Kingsley), have worked out a unique barter system: one session of therapy in exchange for one quarter bag of weed. Squires, a depressed, drug-addicted former beatnik in a miserable marriage, is something of a head case himself, but his advice—which boils down to “have as much sex as possible”—is the only thing that makes Luke feel better. The summer is shaping up to be mad wack (that’s “really bad,” according to the glossary that comes with the film’s press notes), until Luke falls for Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), Dr. Squires’ beautiful and pleasure-loving stepdaughter.
Half out of boredom, Stephanie begins joining Luke on his pot-dealing rounds, where they encounter some nicely sketched minor characters, including indie stalwart Jane Adams as a lonely rock musician and Mary-Kate Olsen as a ditzy Deadhead. Luke and Stephanie share blunts and life stories, eventually consummating their relationship at her parent’s Fire Island cottage. But the real love story of The Wackness is the friendship between Luke and his damaged, self-destructive psychiatrist. Ben Kingsley has had quite a summer: First, he oversaw Mike Myers’ spiritual education in the magisterially awful Love Guru, and now he makes out with Mary-Kate Olsen in a telephone booth. I can’t say he escaped from the former unscathed, but his funny, layered performance as the needy but endearing Jeff is the single best thing in The Wackness. The lanky and wry Olivia Thirlby, who played Ellen Page’s best friend in Juno, also stands out, especially in a scene where the semi-estranged father and daughter watch television together.
Which brings us to the movie’s central problem: naive, mouth-breathing Luke, who dominates virtually every scene, is the movie’s most thinly drawn and least interesting character. It’s never clear, for example, why this sheltered, middle-class, socially awkward boy is so fist-bumpingly down with his streetwise supplier Percy (Wu-Tang’s Method Man). And how much of Luke’s inability to connect with others is due to his constant state of low-level stonage? The Wackness evinces a morally neutral attitude toward drugs that’s refreshing: It’s neither a party movie nor an after-school special. Still, it would be nice to know what, besides the hormones and the chronic, makes Luke tick.
So, unless you’re curating an exhibit on the ‘90s, The Wackness is unlikely to replace Rushmore as your favorite coming-of-age film, but it’s worth seeing for the little moments. When Dr. Squires and his dead-eyed trophy wife (a nearly unrecognizable Famke Janssen) finally decide to divorce, they exchange a split-second smile that lets you see what they once meant to each other. And as Stephanie wades out into the surf on the night she relieves Luke of his virginity, she gets a line that’s perfect for both her devil-may-care character and the movie’s wistful mood: “How could anything possibly matter right now?” Later, Will Smith (that’s vintage Will Smith, of course) raps on the soundtrack: “Think of the summers of the past/ Adjust the bass and let the Alpine blast.” Word up.