Movie News & Reviews

Old story, with a hip-hop soundtrack

It's the same ol' story. A boy becomes a man during one magical summer. He gets guidance from an older mentor. He falls in love with his dream girl. And then he leaves home and faces the world on his own.

The new movie "The Wackness" tweaks that formula a little bit. For starters, the boy is a hip-hop-loving weed dealer. The older mentor is one of his best customers. And the dream girl has been around the block more than a sputtering Chevette passed down through generations.

You can't say "Wackness" doesn't put its own offbeat (and quite rhythmic) spin on the coming-of-age film.

Set in New York during the sweltering summer of 1994, the movie follows Luke (Nickelodeon sitcom star turned consistently agape-jawed film actor Josh Peck), a recent high school grad and master pot salesman who has been hit with the depression bug.

He tells this to Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley), a shrink who gives him therapy in exchange for some of, shall we say, that sticky-icky-icky.

It turns out Squires isn't the best possible man to dispense advice to a depressed teen. Apart from the whole weed-smoking thing, he is going through a midlife crisis, trying to recapture his youth by living vicariously through his ganja-selling college-bound patient. His relationship with his wife (Famke Janssen) is on the verge of collapse. And he is nowhere near a father figure to his voracious stepdaughter (Olivia Thirlby -- who knew Juno's best friend could be such a seductive minx?), on whom Luke has a bit of a crush.

"Wackness" feels like a rap-tinged "American Beauty." It practically has the same plot: weed-dealing disillusioned youngster gets close to an affluent yet totally dysfunctional family to escape his own unstable home life. Except this movie isn't equipped with a smug, condescending arrogance that left me appalled and disgusted.

You can easily sense writer-director Jonathan Levine (who also directed the as-yet-not-officially released horror flick "All The Boys Love Mandy Lane") working out some semi-autobiographical issues. It seems like he takes his adolescence, gives it a stylish, grimy yet sultry sheen, and makes it a bit more eventful than it probably was.

It's the kind of nostalgic male wish-fulfillment fantasy guys will adore (it's already a hit with a few of my guy friends who lived in New York during that time), and through which women will probably grit their teeth (especially since the female characters aren't that fully written).

"The Wackness" is entertaining enough, even if you have trouble taking a minute of it seriously. I mean, it's a movie featuring wall-to-wall hip-hop -- the score is the true star of the show -- and the closest black person is Method Man (slapping on a Jamaican patois I'm sure he has gotten a lot of grief about) as Luke's understanding weed supplier.

You also have Gandhi playing a long-haired, incompetent stoner who makes out with a flighty Mary-Kate Olsen in a phone booth, no less.

I will say that, unlike other Sir Ben Kingsley performances that had him getting his overacting ham on, since he's playing such a ridiculous character, the ham actually seems justified.