Until I saw Mary-Kate Olsen have sex in a phone booth with Ben Kingsley, I didn't realize “The Wackness” was a horror movie. Up until then, it had been only a horrible movie, a status it resumed immediately after their coitus (blessedly) interruptus.
Writer-director Jonathan Levine set the film in New York City in 1994, the year he graduated from high school. It was applauded at Sundance, where coming-of-age movies are inevitably hailed, but its grungy angst offers nothing we need to see anew.
High school drug dealer Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) has a loyal client in his psychiatrist, Jeff Squires (Ben Kingsley), who fires up bongs during skull sessions and encourages the depressed Luke to solve his problems with sex – as long as it doesn't involve Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), his promiscuous stepdaughter. Alas, she's the apple of Luke's stoned eye, partly because she says such insightful things about life as “I just look at the dopeness. But you just look at the wackness.”
Luke's father is going bankrupt, forcing a probable move to suburban New Jersey (the next step to homelessness, in Luke's mind). So as Squires works out his own marital problems with a younger wife (Famke Janssen), Luke pursues elusive Stephanie as a last-ditch attempt at pleasure.
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The film has neither of the main virtues of many Sundance movies – wit and edginess – and all of the vices: self-indulgent belief that characters are interesting merely because the writer says so, self-conscious hipness, an unearned happy ending that contradicts both our desires and preceding incidents.
The movie is also physically ugly, shot mostly in unnaturally darkened rooms or a washed-out sepia tone that may be meant as symbolism. It does have a great soundtrack, mostly of rap tunes, though it strains for a sense of time and place with lots of Giuliani bashing and dialogue such as “I'm mad crazy, yo.” (Yet a Starbucks joke rings oddly; New Yorkers didn't know or care 14 years ago what a Starbucks was.)
Peck and Thirlby, both touching in their low-key ways, manage to sustain our interest sporadically. Olsen never reappears after her bizarre, unnecessary cameo.
Kingsley throws a Brooklyn accent into a few scenes, as if testing for the Billy Crystal role in “Analyze This,” but he's dull and unsympathetic. He has made 15 movies in the last five years – including “Bloodrayne,” “The Last Legion,” “The Love Guru” and “Lucky Number Slevin” – and has seven more in the works, so there's apparently nothing he won't do for money. If you'd like to book an Oscar-winner for your bar mitzvah entertainment, put in a bid.