Ben Kingsley partially saves this indie coming-of-age contrivance

The Wackness

on July 03, 2008 by Cathleen Rountree

Both patient and therapist, self-medicating director/screenwriter Jonathan Levine took the words of rap artist Ghostface Killah to heart: “If you forget where you come from, you never gonna make it where you’re going.” Thus, Levine’s sophomore feature film effort takes place in a New York City in 1994, the year he graduated from a private high school. His alter-ego, Luke Shapiro’s (Josh Peck) experience mirrors the director’s own—a convoluted world of, mostly, problems: depression; social outcast; no girlfriend; bickering, money-troubled parents (Talia Balsam, David Wohl) threatened with eviction; pot dealer--oh, wait, Levine assured audiences at Sundance and Tribeca screenings: “I never sold weed. I swear.” Sure…. With focused adverts, pic should attract twenty- and thirtysomething males seeking vicarious connection with yet another indie coming-of-age contrivance.

Bartering weed for the talking cure, Luke bonds with his wacked-out, wacking-off psychiatrist Jeff Squires (Ben Kingsley). When he discovers that they’re both stoners, that they both suffer unhappy home situations and loneliness, crave sex and, like many of us, hope the next new high will solve their problems and sweeten their sorrows. One is in late adolescence, the other is in late mid-life arrested development. The story gathers steam and hits snags when Jeff learns that his young client/dealer pines for his classmate Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), who—it turns out—is Jeff’s stepdaughter. At first, the popular, precocious girl remains aloof, but as the summer heats up and her buddies flee to the Hamptons, she concedes to invite Luke into the exotic world of her family home on Fire Island when her parents’ head to Barbados in a last ditch effort to salvage their crumbling marriage. Jeff’s romantic pursuits vacillate between his attractive, but narcissistic and rejecting wife Kristin (Famke Janssen), and a rather unseemly make-out session with Union (Mary-Kate Olsen), a retro-hippie, in a phone booth.

The eminently watchable Kingsley—with his yuppie hair and his faux-New York twang—makes the film a lot more amusing than it would be without him. But I kept remembering his past portrayals, especially those of an ascetic, resolute Gandhi and Don Logan, the maniacal sadist of Sexy Beast, and interposing them with Jeff. As we’ve come to expect, Sir Ben steals the show (which isn’t hard). There are moments of poignancy and genuine existential angst, but Jeff (and none of the other characters, really) ever quite comes to life, never feels authentic.

The exuberant soundtrack, however, does work. Mid-’90s NYC means hip hop, big time. Tupac and Biggie still lived and Nas, OutKast and Method Man (who has a role in this film) ruled. The city itself also serves as a vibrant primary character. Of course, off screen, Giuliani’s efforts to eradicate crime and street art (and even what he considered questionable museum art) renders him mighty unlikable.

And the title? During a Q&A, Levine revealed that The Wackness is meant to “capture both the style and the substance of the film, the existential dilemma that our characters are going through.” Oh, okay. Well, whatever.… There’s still space for future indie coming-of-age stories on the order of Brick, The Graduate and Garden State, but The Wackness isn’t one of them.

Distributor: Sony Classics
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Josh Peck, Famke Janssen, Olivia Thirlby, Mary-Kate Olsen, Method Man, Jane Adams, Aaron Yoo, Talia Balsam, David Wohl, Bob Dishy and Joanne Merlin
Director/Screenwriter: Jonathan Levine
Producers: Joe Neurauter, Keith Calder and Felipe Marino
Genre: Comedy/Drama
Rating: R for pervasive drug use, language and some sexuality
Running time: 110 min.
Release date: July 3

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