These days, if you were to drop stale slang terms like the adjective forms of "wack" or "dope," you'd probably sound, well, pretty wack.
Such expressions constantly pepper the dialogue of the young characters in The Wackness, Jonathan Levine's half-successful, bittersweet coming-of-age tale. The Wackness takes place in the summer of 1994, so the timing's right, but the characters who use the hip-hop lingo tend to be privileged, white teenagers fresh out of high school, mostly around Manhattan's Upper East Side. Starting every other sentence with the word "Yo" makes them sound like posers, but at least they're not out of date.
Levine, the film's writer and director, graduated from high school in 1994 and offers a loosely autobiographical self-portrait through his protagonist, Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck). The lonely hip-hop fan spends the long, hot summer waiting to attend his "safety school," and between his bickering parents and his lack of friends, he mostly deals with people through his job selling pot from an Italian ice cart.
Josh's clients include aloof former classmates, would-be musicians and, most significantly, Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley), an aging Jewish shrink who trades therapy sessions for dime bags. Unhappily married to a bored beauty (an underused but pitch-perfect Famke Janssen), Squires forms an unlikely bond with Luke over their mutual interest in drugs, music and women. That becomes a sore point when Luke pursues his unrequited love for Squires' stepdaughter Stephanie (Juno's Olivia Thirlby).
A sylph-like beauty reminiscent of Ione Skye in Say Anything, Thirlby captures the elusive promise of teen dating as she veers unpredictably between let's-be-friends formality and come-hither intimacy. Our hearts go out to Luke in his lovelorn frustration. Despite being a restless, unmotivated young man, Peck gives a focused performance, conveying Luke's feelings even when he doesn't know what he wants.
Peck and Kingsley play off each other well, as the inexperienced boy generally proves wiser than the seasoned medical professional. New York City probably features a huge population of similarly neurotic, middle-aged bohemians, and Squires proves more credibly knotty than his counterparts in Woody Allen films. Squires indulges in so much extreme behavior – from hitting a huge bong to making out with Mary-Kate Olsen in white-girl dreadlocks – that the role doesn't need a broad interpretation. Unfortunately, Kingsley gives it a big, showboating performance, his characterization marked by a De Niro accent, a Mafia don haircut and sleeveless shirts like Harvey Keitel's in the 1970s. Increasingly you begin to welcome his absences from the film.
The Wackness' plot too predictably follows the coming-of-age formula that could be called "My First Novel" (although it's Levine's second film, following All the Boys Love Mandy Lane). Luke becomes an enterprising dope dealer partly to help his financially struggling parents, a contrivance that feels like a bid for sympathy for the self-absorbed protagonist. Luke's casual friendship with a gun-toting Jamaican drug dealer (Method Man) feels similarly far-fetched.
Levine proves better as a director of actors and shaper of scenes than as a screenwriter. He doesn't go overboard with the show-offy details, like the little lapses into music-video style that play like brief, adolescent flights of fancy. His soundtrack selections dig into your subconscious, particularly when Luke gives Squires a cassette featuring A Tribe Called Quest's "Can I Kick It?" The song samples Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side"; the music, and the subsequent Manhattan-by-night montage, suggest a bridge between generations.
During a similarly lovely romantic idyll on Fire Island, Stephanie has a line that explains the title: "I just look at the dopeness, you just look at the wackness," she tells Luke in a hip-hop variation on the old glass-is-half-empty cliché. It's hard to look past the wackness in Levine's film, even though it has plenty of dopeness as well. Word.