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Well-played characters make 'Wackness' a hit

Ben Kingsley, left, plays a pot-smoking psychiatrist. Josh Peck plays Luke, a dealer in need of counseling.

Sony Pictures Classics

Ben Kingsley, left, plays a pot-smoking psychiatrist. Josh Peck plays Luke, a dealer in need of counseling.

The Wackness (R ) (95 min.) — Each decade since the 1960s counterculture has its signature film of disaffected youth, from The Graduate to Garden State, except the 1990s.

Filling that void is Jonathan Levine's The Wackness, a movie so ingratiatingly written and performed that even its missteps are lovable. There's plenty in Levine's film to overlook, especially the erratic pacing that makes it feel a half-hour longer. Those lulls have purpose, allowing three clever actors to flesh out their intriguing roles and our involvement with them.

We expect such artistry from Ben Kingsley, who once again drops the "Sir" stuffiness to play a splendidly crude character. He relishes such chances. It's obvious in each cackle, squint and blunt line delivery he gives as Dr. Jeff Squires, a goateed Manhattan psychiatrist preferring self-medication for his marital anxieties.

Dr. Squires smokes marijuana, obtained from young Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck, in an impressive breakthrough) and smoked in a bong between sessions. Luke sorely needs counseling, with his parents speaking fluent argument and classmates preferring Luke's stash to his company — except for Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby, Juno), who happens to be Dr. Squires' stepdaughter. Thirlby plays her sexual precociousness against Peck's virginal nervousness to grand effect.

Nothing really happens to these people; they've already done everything dramatic to themselves. Levine shows the aftershocks of Dr. Squires' icy relationship with his wife (Famke Janssen), Stephanie's resentment toward him and Luke's economically threatened home life. Selling pot in Central Park is his escape, a place to woo Stephanie and bond with Dr. Squires, whose hippie spirit is sneaking out.

The Wackness is set in 1994 yet feels like a movie from two decades prior, when films took time to explain occasionally unappealing characters, and scenes could be brilliantly pointless. It was an actor's time, encouraged by generous directors. Certainly the performances of Kingsley, Peck and Thirlby possess a rawness that although not exactly improvised — the dialogue's too good to stray from — would fit into that era.

Levine also provides a kickin' musical soundtrack for Luke's and Dr. Squires' mind-sets — A Tribe Called Quest doing Lou Reed, plus Mott the Hoople and a then-new phenomenon, Notorious B.I.G. — swapped on cassette mix tapes for period authenticity. All that and Mary-Kate Olsen making out with Sir Ben. In such delirious moments, The Wackness is the dopeness. B+

Steve Persall, Times film critic

Well-played characters make 'Wackness' a hit 07/30/08 [Last modified: Friday, August 1, 2008 2:44pm]
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