The Wackness

A more apt title for “The Wackness” would be “The Wackiness,” as in, “Look at all the wackiness we’ve manufactured for you!” Just as the lily-white central character tries desperately to come off as “street” and “hip” while simultaneously trying to look like he’s NOT trying, so does the film try to assert its coolness without letting its exertions show. The result is a so-so comedy with some genuinely funny scenes, punctuated with too many trying-too-hard elements.

Look at the Ben Kingsley character. He plays a Manhattan psychiatrist who trades therapy for pot. His life is a mess. He makes out with Mary-Kate Olsen. (See preceding statement.) He is kooky and nutty — but not in a real way. He is kooky and nutty in the way that movie characters are. I laughed at him now and then, but I never really believed him. For a film that purports to trade in slice-of-life realism, that’s a major liability.

Kingsley gets his weed from Luke Shapiro, the film’s protagonist, played by Nickelodeon’s Josh Peck. The year is 1994, and New York City is in transition, with Mayor Giuliani cleaning things up, and, some say, eliminating the city’s character and personality in the process. Luke is in a period of flux as well, having just graduated from high school and slumping through life as a typical teenage douchebag. He sells weed full-time from an ice cream cart, stopping in once a week to visit Dr. Squires (Kingsley) while also harboring a crush on Squires’ stepdaughter, Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby).

Luke be frontin’ like he all street and s***, but he know he ain’t. Peppering his slang with gangsta declamations like “I got mad love for you, shorty” and the noun of the film’s title (it’s a state of being that is the opposite of dopeness), he’s a poser and a clown. He’s not the butt of the film’s jokes, though — this isn’t a situation where we’re supposed to laugh at the protagonist’s cluelessness. I think we’re meant to take him more or less at face value and accept his idiocy as nothing more than typical teenage insecurity.

Written and directed by Jonathan Levine (whose feature debut, “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane,” is an outstanding horror flick still awaiting theatrical release), “The Wackness” focuses on two parallel relationships. In one, Stephanie starts to warm up to Luke, their romance expanding over the course of the hot summer. In the other, Dr. Squires tries to rekindle his cold marriage to Stephanie’s trophy-wife mother (Famke Janssen). In the background, Luke’s own parents fight constantly over money problems.

But the strange friendship between Luke and Dr. Squires is the real meat of the story. With as good as both of these actors are — Peck is likable even when his character is annoying; Kingsley’s credits do not need reiteration here — their interaction has the potential to be witty, endearing, and outstanding. But they’re hamstrung by Levine’s jokey screenplay and flagrant attempts to wring laughs out of the audience merely by invoking mid-’90s nostalgia. Sorry, but references to Biggie Smalls and O.J. Simpson are not automatically funny.

Most of the film is presented in bleak, desaturated colors, while at other times the images are gauzy and dreamlike, shot in soft focus. There is no discernible reason for the variations. While the movie can hop from goofy to maudlin at the drop of a hat, the visual shifts don’t correspond to the shifts in tone.

I’ve seen responses to the film both lavish and disdainful, and I find myself in a weird middle ground, in that the movie inspired no particularly strong feelings in me one way or the other. Even at 95 minutes it is definitely too long, with at least a half-dozen scenes that could be eliminated without doing damage to the story. On the other hand, it has some laughs and a story line that’s generally appealing. I wouldn’t expend a lot of effort to see it again, but I probably wouldn’t change the channel if I saw it on cable, either.

C+ (1 hr., 35 min.; R, abundant harsh profanity, strong sexual dialogue and some sexual activity, brief partial nudity.)