When does an era qualify for nostalgia? Jonathan Levine’s The Wackness is a studiously offbeat coming-of-age crowd-pleaser set in New York City during the long-ago, far-away days of…the summer of 1994. The film is dotted with timely signifiers (Forrest Gump ads on a bus, lots of jabber about Giuliani), but its one truly relevant reference point is that this was the last moment in the culture before cell phones. Since The Wackness tells the story of a teen drug dealer, pagers and pay phones are part of his arsenal.
Luke Shapiro is a geek with a swagger on the Upper East Side of Manhattan who sells bags of pot out of a fake Italian-ices cart. He’s played by Josh Peck, a swarthy, insinuating actor whose knitted brows and scratchy-voiced, mocking manner are reminiscent of Bruno Kirby and David Krumholtz. The Wackness skates over the particulars of Luke’s drug operation, because the teen-pot-salesman premise is little more than that — a premise. There’s a far more sentimental and, yes, quirky teen romance nestled within this tale of a dude who peddles the chronic as innocently as a paperboy. ”Olivia Thirlby”, as Luke’s crush, is as sultry-fresh as she was nerdishly genuine in ”Snow Angels”, but the love story, which doesn’t go anywhere new, seems an afterthought by the time Luke buddies up with his shrink, an ornery, long-haired pothead played by Ben Kingsley with a ”New York” accent somewhere between Brooklynese and Hungarian. Since the shrink is never a credible human being, The Wackness feels a little half-baked (no pun intended). The best thing about it is Peck, who shows you the sweet, virginal kid hiding inside the outlaw poseur. B-