Film Review: “The Wackness”

July 18, 2008

“The Wackness” is a film that is largely about the sale and use of marijuana, but it is definitely not a stoner movie. Here is a movie that requires no intoxication for enjoyment. It is rare in any form of art for everything to just come together so beautifully, all at once. For all that this film is about everything our society deems wrong — illegal drug abuse, drug dealing, prescription drug abuse, underage drinking, infidelity, premarital sex — at the end, it just makes you feel all right inside.

The movie covers the post-high school summer of Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck, who I hadn’t seen in a movie since “Snow Day” in 2000, but who, IMDB tells me, has been decently busy since then), a loner with a booming business in selling his fellow New Yorkers marijuana out of a rather ragged-looking water ice cart — with a padlock on it, of course. He sells weed to his psychiatrist, a certain Dr. Jeffrey Squires (Ben Kingsley), a man significantly more depressed and unsatisfied with his path in life than the patients he’s supposed to treat, in exchange for sessions, and also to Squires’ stepdaughter, Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby of “Juno” semi-fame, in a performance nearly as slang-filled as that one).

There comes a point when Stephanie says to Luke, “I see the dopeness in everything, and you just see the wackness.” Like much of the rest of the movie, this line is worthy of careful consideration, not just a brief laugh and the thought, “Ah, so that’s why the movie’s got that name.” As you sit and watch Luke’s life, you realize that he’s simply someone whose life to this point has been solely comprised of wackness. His parents have financial difficulties; they argue a lot and “act like children,” Luke tells Squires. He has no friends, except for his psychiatrist and his stepdaughter. When he finally encounters some dopeness, that turns into wackness, too.

If Luke’s life is bad, Squires’ is worse, as the old man sees his life slip away in a monotonous life and a loveless marriage (with wife Kristin, played by Famke Janssen, who didn’t really do anything in the entire film). And so the young pothead and the old pothead (with some pill abuse on the side) are both basically alone in the world, never forming any emotional connections except with each other, until Luke briefly “goes steady” with Stephanie.

The coming-of-age story — which this is, in a roundabout way — has been done before, and the stoner slacker pot-dealing character, too, but Peck and Kingsley sold it through and through by virtue of two performances that rank among the most sincere and convincing of any I’ve seen this year. Even at rock bottom, this oddest of odd couples is able to elicit smiles from each other — and the audience. As they slowly grow together, they share their music with each other — Luke listens to what we now consider old-school rap (which makes up most of the outstanding soundtrack), Squires to the rock-and-roll of his generation. They hit bongs, they drink beers, maybe they pop some pills, but although drugs were the beginning of their friendship, they certainly are not the foundation. They’re two wandering souls searching for their mates, and finding them in the most unexpected place.

Young writer-director Jonathan Levine keeps the movie tautly to its storyline, never stumbling and never forgetting his purpose. As a critic, you appreciate it; as a viewer, you’re mesmerized. For this movie, unlike many others, has a purpose beyond entertainment; it promotes a message better presented than any I can remember seeing. That message is simply this: Everything is going to be okay.

Everything is going to be okay.

No matter how much your heart may hurt, just step outside and take a walk on a warm summer day with some good music in your ears, and all you feel and all you see is the dopeness.

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