It's the summer of 1994, and the streets of New York are pulsing with hip-hop. Set against this backdrop, a lonely teenager named Luke Shapiro spends his last summer before university selling marijuana throughout New York City, trading it with his unorthodox psychotherapist for treatment, while having a crush on his stepdaughter.
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Friendship, love, and coming of age in New York City, summer of 1994. Luke Shapiro has just graduated from high school, sells marijuana, and trades pot for therapy from a psychologist, Dr. Jeffrey Squires. Luke is attracted to a classmate, Stephanie, who's out of his league and Squires' step-daughter. By July, he's hanging out with Stephanie, taking her on his rounds selling pot out of an ice-cream pushcart. Then things take a turn. In the background, Squires and his wife as well as Luke's parents are having their troubles. Written by
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The Wackness is an extremely difficult movie to figure out. On one hand, writer/director Jon Levine paints a captivating story around the friendship of two identifiable protagonists in depressed teenage drug dealer Luke Shapiro, played by an up-to-the-task Josh Peck, and eccentric shrink, Dr. Squires, played by a barely up to the task Ben Kingsley. On the other hand, the script itself struggles to find a tone largely fumbling the 1994 NYC setting and ultimately dabbling with dark comedy, philosophy 101, and drug/party filled 90s teenage musings without really nailing down any thematic voice. The movie does succeed in escaping its hazy plot lines and sophomoric personalities with several great one-liners, some decent character development, and a conclusion that left me satisfied but nevertheless a bit sad --which is not a bad thing. Of the 80% filled NYC theater I saw it in, 10 people walked out, the rest applauded at the end. Its that kind of movie.
One of the biggest problems with the movie is its failure to use the 1994 New York City setting to its fullest. As a product of this time and place I felt cheated because Mr. Levine chooses to exploit tid-bits of the culture without ever really showing any substance. We hear references to Kurt Cobain and Phish, we see Luke playing Nintendo NES, we hear a good selection of Biggie, Wu-Tang Clan, and Tribe Called Quest and several references to the Guliani gestapo police, but Levine failed to create a teenage period piece to rival Dazed and Confused, Kids, or Mallrats to name a few more recent ones. The cinematography is good, and adds a vintage type feel to the NYC background, but as a cultural snapshot of a time in NYC history, this movie falls flat.
However, Levine was perhaps preoccupied with a greater goal than a period piece. Shapiro and Dr. Squires are not easy characters to support. Shapiro is a bulk sales weed dealer, with no friends, and a stunted sex life. I think many people will be able to relate to him either directly or indirectly and will enjoy following his teenage "coming of age" tribulations as I did. Kingsley, as Squires, has a tough role and at times plays the stoner shrink as though he has early onset Alzheimer's disease. Its not an easy role, his character is a walking contradiction who mixes decent psychological advice with occasional moments of idiocy. At times he nails it down, at others he comes across as the drunk uncle at Thanksgiving dinner that we are all a bit embarrassed for, but this was probably Levine's intention. Amidst writing that ebbed and flowed at a mediocre level, the dialog between Shapiro and Squires had some knock outs and worked its way up to a satisfying conclusion. The peripheral characters perform admirably when asked, except for Famke Jannsen who failed to show up for her role as Squires' numb to life wife.
If you have ever turned to the recreational consumption of drugs or any other vice as an escape from life or to just 'deal' with life, you will find both Shapiro and Squires much much much more sympathetic and in some ways touching characters. The story of the young Shapiro and old Squires blends the themes of 'soothing your growing pains through drugs (mostly marijuana)' versus the 'trying to go back to your youth and escape your adulthood' through drugs. People who can appreciate or relate to such plot lines will find this movie much more touching than those who cant.
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