If you didn't pay much attention to slang in 1994 you might not know that "wack" means lame, sorry, weak -- the opposite of "dope." In the quirky comic drama "The Wackness," that's how the world looks to 17-year-old Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck).
His folks fight about money all day long, he's not especially popular and he can't wait to move out. To finance that goal, Luke is an enterprising drug dealer who wheels his wares around New York City in an ice cream vendor's pushcart. He's about to leave behind high school and -- he hopes -- the burden of his totally wack virginity.
That sweltering summer before college, Luke copes with his world-weariness by trading weed for extra time with his psychiatrist. Jeffrey Squires, M.D. (Ben Kingsley), an aging hipster, takes the pot to help him deal with his sputtering marriage and moody stepdaughter, Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby).
Writer/director Jonathan Levine's film is a generous-spirited study of characters in pain. Funny pain, but it still hurts. Most of their problems stem from their efforts to ease spiritual and psychic aches with medication, money, marijuana or sex. Luke wants to move ahead into self-confident adulthood. Dr. Squires, with his Aerosmith hair and jaunty goatee, is trying to merge into the fun crowd before he's too old for a final fling. Hanging out with Luke makes the bong-hitting, pill-popping Dr. Squires feel younger. Spending time with Dr. Squires brings Luke closer to the ultra-desirable Stephanie. They're both scared about the future. They both want to get laid. Like all the characters in this film, they misunderstand themselves and give one another the wrong kind of advice, assistance and friendship.
Doctor and patient become pot-peddling partners, and the therapist-client dynamic reverses polarity several times before the tale is through. As Luke stretches himself in pursuit of his first serious romance, Dr. Squires regresses, scrawling graffiti on bus shelters and canoodling with a freewheeling hippie stoner girl (Mary-Kate Olsen in a winning cameo).
Levine's story is wreathed in clouds of cannabis smoke, but it's a far cry from the stereotypical stoner comedy, closer in tone to "The Graduate" than "Harold & Kumar." Levine has a sensitive ear for character-defining dialogue and a rueful wisdom about the inevitability of disappointment. After wasting valuable time, money and brain cells running away from pain, his heroes find a way to live with it, balancing hope and pessimism. Stephanie helps Luke wise up, telling him, "I see the dopeness in everything, and you just see the wackness." By the finale, he's beginning to put both in focus.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186