“Do you ever feel like a fuck-up?” So inquires recent high-school grad Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) of his psychiatrist, Dr. Jeffrey Squires (Ben Kingsley).
It’s a pretty good question, especially since at that moment, the doctor is lighting a huge bong at his desk to smoke the marijuana that Luke has just given him in exchange for their therapy session. That happens in the opening scene of The Wackness, an aimless but engaging comedy that opens here this week. The movie takes place in New York in the summer of 1994, before Luke goes off to college, though not the one he was hoping for. He deals dope out of a food cart, partly to fit in (at school he’s “the most popular of the unpopular kids”) and partly because his dad’s gambling habit has his family on the brink of eviction. Luke’s starting not to like his life, so he can easily relate to his doctor, a longtime substance abuser whose marriage is falling apart.
The heart of this film is the contentious and often funny patter between Luke and his shrink, who’s full of fatherly advice, misguided as it often is. (In one scene, the doc announces his intention to cheat on his wife, saying, “Sometimes it’s right to do the wrong thing.” Then he winds up making out with Luke’s hippie-chick customer, who’s played by Mary-Kate Olsen.) Kingsley still can’t do an American accent to save his life, but he’s fierce and lively playing a wreck of a character, and he makes an assured comedy team with the sleepy-eyed Peck (from TV’s Drake & Josh), who does some excellent work delineating the dealer’s adolescent vulnerability. This is especially true when the virginal Luke falls in love with the doctor’s stepdaughter Stephanie (a bracing Olivia Thirlby), a shallow party girl who’s clearly going to ditch Luke as soon as she gets bored with him.
Writer/director Jonathan Levine suffuses this movie with hazy nostalgia (including loving references to Kurt Cobain, step aerobics, Zima, and Beverly Hills 90210) and loads the soundtrack with hip-hop and neo-soul music from the time. The vibe of an oppressively hot summer when there’s not much going on is captured well. Perhaps a bit too well, since the story’s momentum falters noticeably toward the end. In his focus on atmosphere, Levine overdoes the lazy longueurs, and his DELETE’s dramatic payoffs are too small.
I should also note that there’s a better movie about a pot dealer called Pineapple Express coming out next week. Still, The Wackness undeniably has its distinct minor charms, and its realistic tone is flexible enough to accommodate some memorable fantasy sequences – when Luke walks home from his triumphant first date with Stephanie, the sections of the sidewalk under his feet light up like in Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video. This derivative but winning touch contributes to the pleasant and entirely legal buzz that the movie gives you.
Starring Josh Peck and Ben Kingsley. Written and directed by Jonathan Levine. Rated R.