The Wackness (R)
Here's one way to look at it: "Bong-ripping Gandhi in midlife crisis bonks baby from Full House in phone booth; Nickelodeon tween gapes!"
See, it has potential, right? Writer-director Jonathan Levine's feature debut, The Wackness, might have been quite original and outrageous, had it decided to play itself out with tabloid-headline abandon. But, being a slacker picture, after all, and wanting you to think it's too cool to, you know, try, The Wackness squanders its potential, ultimately playing things safe with the trusty, Sundance-approved coming-of-age dramedy.
In Manhattan in the summer of '94, teen virgin Luke Shapiro, played by the aforementioned Nickelodeon tween Josh Peck, spends those precious, fleeting months following high school wondering whether he'll get laid, worrying about his parents' money troubles, and selling weed from an ice cream cart or trading it for sessions with his therapist. A therapist played by the aforementioned Gandhi Ben Kingsley, of course, in a role about as far from his Oscar-winning impersonation of India's hero as a film can take him.
Here he is the rather vulnerable, therapeutically questionable, strangely companionable Dr. Squires, whose wife (Famke Janssen) is halfway gone in her own haze of attitude and cigarette smoke. And his dalliance with a random hippie chick (indeed, Mary-Kate Olsen) doesn't help. The bud from his buddy, however, might. Or does that just exacerbate his problems? Anyway, as the movie unfolds, the adolescent and the arrested adolescent will bond and become marginally more mature together.
The unfolding involves Luke being seen among plenty of "hey-look" period details (all affectedly shot by cinematographer Petra Korner), stocking up from his Jamaican supplier (Method Man) and falling for Squires' step-daughter, Stephanie. As embodied by Olivia Thirlby (Juno), Stephanie seems like just the right kind of wrong girl for him; she doesn't really mean to string him along, but doesn't really mean not to, either.
"She'll break your heart, Luke," the shrink warns, in what is perhaps his most perceptive and possessive piece of advice. "She'll get bored." And so it seems.
Of course you see where this is going, or, indeed, where it already is. Imagine vintage Wes Anderson drained of the novelty and self-mockery, and instead of Nick Drake and Brit rock and Bart'k on the soundtrack, it's Nas and Biggie and A Tribe Called Quest. Yes, Levine would like to make clear his hipness to the era's hip-hop.
That's as it should be. The music is what's best about The Wackness, although the film also sort of wants points for not making a big fuss about its drug use. It's neither raging one-note stoner comedy nor thinly veiled PSA, but instead, like, whatever, just a movie. Like many others.
Which is too bad, because it knows it has something in the way Sir Ben goes at that bong and at that Olsen twin a stunt, sure, but also the one sight to which Peck's perpetually slackened jaw really is the right response.
Otherwise, beyond a vague little bit of Levine's apparent unresolved hostility to the ladies and a vague little bit of awareness about how coming-of-age movies are supposed to go, The Wackness doesn't have any ideas. All told, it's what its poseur protagonist might call mad mediocre, yo.