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The Wackness

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By Adam Frazier

Written and directed by Jonathan Levine, “The Wackness” is a rather quirky coming-of-age film set in 1994 during a sweltering New York summer. The newly inaugurated mayor, Rudy Giuliani, has begun executing his initiatives to cut down on urban annoyances such as graffiti, public intoxication and noise pollution, namely those pesky ghetto blasters and boom boxes.

Enter Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck), a recent high school graduate who might be the most popular of the unpopular, or the most unpopular of the popular – either way, Luke spends most of the time in his room alone, loyally listening to hip-hop beats on cassette or playing The Legend of Zelda on his Nintendo. The socially inept Luke doesn’t have any friends, and his parents’ relentless bickering pushes him further down the path to depression.

Luke wants to get away from it all, though his parents’ financial problems limit his college hopes. He resorts to selling marijuana out of an ice cream cart to fund his future. Among his many paying clients, Luke trades weed to his drug-addled psychiatrist, Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley), for words of wisdom.

After admitting to Squires that his life sucks, Luke asks for anti-depressants. The hypocritical shrink, who is addicted to numerous prescription drugs, advises the youngster to embrace his pain, rather than run from it. In the good doctor’s opinion, Luke just needs to get laid.

Getting laid has never been so hard, especially for a virgin like Shapiro. There is a girl he’s currently crushing on, but the only problem is its Squires’ sexpot stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby). You know Thirlby from “Juno,” where she played the title character’s best friend. She’s a bubbly, appealing presence in this film – and she plays the part of a bored girl in the summer perfectly.

As Luke struggles with his own coming of age, Squires is miserable, overmedicated and drowning in a midlife crisis. His wife (Famke Janssen) no longer loves him and the once respectable doctor begins acting more like an adolescent than his teenage patient. Squires’ story is of a man who became a boy becoming a man again. You’ve never quite seen Sir Ben Kingsley like this before. Try to imagine Gandhi boozing, taking bong hits and making out with a Grateful Dead-worshipping Mary-Kate Olsen, complete with gypsy skirt and dreadlocks.

“The Wackness” succeeds more than it fails. It’s emotionally authentic and sweetly sincere, despite it’s grimy, drug-addicted exterior. It does, however, tend to trip over itself towards the conclusion. Though the film only lasts 95 minutes, the last act stalls out too many times only to start up again and limp onward – dragging the ending out to the point where 95 minutes feels like 130 minutes.

“The Wackness” overcomes its failures with wonderful performances by Josh Peck and Sir Ben Kingsley and a clever script by writer/director Jonathan Levine. Levine seems to have captured his own transition from adolescence to maturity in the movie’s heart and soul, giving “The Wackness,” an autobiographical feel that can’t be faked.

Overall, “The Wackness” is a charming coming-of-age film that feels honest and genuine. Levine has painstakingly recreated the summer of 1994. I can feel the sweltering heat of New York City streets – the smell of marijuana smoke drifting through the air – the beats and rhythms of A Tribe Called Quest on the radio and the sweet sincerity in being brokenhearted.

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Author: Adam Frazier
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