Many movies wax nostalgic for the good old days; “The Wackness” is the only movie I can think of that’s nostalgic for a time occupied by people who are themselves nostalgic about their own good old days. Though writer/director Jonathan Levine’s wistful coming-of-age film wants us to miss New York City as we knew it in 1994, the characters are all pissed off: their marriages are falling apart or their high school careers (and, thus, their lives) are coming to an end, and the new mayor is cracking down on drug use.
I guess the grass the grass, man is always greener. Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) is an enterprising high school senior who makes up for his parents’ employment fuckups by dealing pot around his Upper East Side neighborhood. His aesthetic, much like the movie itself, is pointedly old school: cassettes instead of CDs, Nintendo instead of Sega Genesis. One of his clients is a hot girl named Stephanie (“Snow Angels'” Olivia Thirlby, occupying a similar role); her stepfather, a psychiatrist named Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley), begins giving Luke free therapy sessions in exchange for dime bags. Soon, Luke and Dr. Squires are friends and Luke and Stephanie are more than friends and the film follows the progress of both relationships.
Regardless of whatever else it might also be about vintage hip hop, the pleasures of getting high, jokes about Zima “The Wackness” primarily presents a world paralyzed by immaturity. Luke scolds his parents for acting like children but dreads his own imminent entrÃ©e into adulthood (his self-professed life plan: graduate high school, go to a safety school, get old and die). Dr. Squires warns Luke against the dangers of anti-depressants, while taking them himself (when he’s not smoking pot with his stepdaughter’s boyfriend, of course). No one in the cast wants to act their age: the doctor’s wife, played by Famke Janssen, claims she’s almost 40; he has to remind her that she’s actually 42. Everyone in the cast is superb and, in particular, Kingsley, who seems to spend most of his time lately playing outsized villains in terrible junk (“BloodRayne,” “Thunderbirds”), but is at his best in small roles like this one.
Levine relies to heavily on ’90s pop culture callbacks and slang for easy jokes, and that’s probably what’s going to be used to sell the film to a wider audience. But a lot of that feels to me like a filmmaker trying to use irony and sarcasm to disguise what is, at its core, a very sincere and sentimental story. Levine’s emphasis on specificity he goes to the trouble to rig up a bus that passes Luke with a “Forrest Gump” ad nearly undoes his story’s inherent universality. Luke’s problems could manifest in any time period, and the best parts about “The Wackness” are the ones that could have been set a hundred years ago, or a hundred years from now. Those ideas ones about growing up, growing old, getting fucked up are a lot more vital and a lot more interesting than another reference to “Beverly Hills, 90210,” and they make you nostalgic for an era, when movies like these were the norm instead of the exception.