Has enough time passed for filmmakers to become nostalgic for the early 1990s? It would seem pop culture needs at least another 10 years before the Fly Girls, late grunge, early gangsta, pay phones, and idioms such as "dope," "fresh," and "yo" can be considered romantic. Nevertheless, writer-director Jonathan Levine sets his coming-of-age story in New York circa summer 1994, when newly elected Mayor Rudy Giuliani began his campaign to sweep the homeless, graffiti artists, and other benign criminals from Manhattan's streets. Luckily for The Wackness' hero, Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck), a baggy-pants kid can still sell pot out of a banged-up cart in Central Park unmolested. (Although the cops are quick to pounce on a couple of taggers marking their territory on a wall in the yet-to-be-Disneyfied Times Square.)
A savvy pot dealer and recent high school graduate, Shapiro plans to shuffle through the summer smoking and dealing before facing a future of, in his words, going to his safety school, getting older, and dying. The only ray of light piercing Shapiro's mad depression is his crush on an Upper West Side Lolita named Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), who happens to be the stepdaughter of psychologist Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley), who barters therapy for pot. But the summer throws Luke, Stephanie, and Squires — all stuck in individual limbos — some curves. And the three are mostly older and wiser come September.
Peck, most familiar to those who were born in 1994 as half of Nickelodeon's tween duo Drake & Josh, is both subtle and sympathetic as Luke. He nails a pothead's shambling, slack-jawed physicality but still conveys intelligence and passion beneath his heavy-lidded eyes — not an easy feat of acting. Thirlby, best known for playing the close friend of Ellen Page's title character in Juno, is bubbly and cute in period-costume bike shorts and chunky gold-hoop earrings. But she doesn't bring much to the role other than precocious sex appeal.
Of course, old man Kingsley runs away with the movie. His Squires is the perfect picture of a "weird old guy" trying to recapture some of his lost youth by hanging around with a bunch of disaffected teens. He doesn't succeed, but he does get to make out with a dreadlocked Mary-Kate Olsen. The chemistry evident between Kingsley and Peck in their characters' delightfully bizarre mentor-mentee relationship saves The Wackness from becoming yet another collection of coming-of-age tropes. Word.
Written and directed by: Jonathan Levine
Starring: Josh Peck, Ben Kingsley, Olivia Thirlby, Mary-Kate Olsen