A lot of fuss was made this summer over a screwball comedy about a pot dealer and his kooky friend. Is it okay to cast drug dealers as good guys? If so, does that mean the war on drugs is officially over? And would you call that a victory by attrition? Reagan is turning in his grave.
Meanwhile, a smaller, gentler, movie about a pot dealer and his kooky friend was being made. Written and directed by Jonathan Levine, “The Wackness,” while it’s not exactly a great film, is in every possible way a better film than “Pineapple Express.” To begin with, it happens in a real time and place – Guiliani’s New York. Josh Peck is the pot dealer, just graduated from high school and trying to make enough money to keep his family from being evicted. (Peck perfectly captures a certain kind of guy I knew in high school, and always suspected of dealing, except he’s way nicer.) All summer sells his wares out of a wheeled cart labelled “f esh and del cious ices”; one wonders what he does when some bright eyed kid wants a grape slushy. Peck trades pot for sessions with pychiatrist Ben Kingsley, who mostly tells him that he needs to get laid. You wonder if the guy has any other clients.
Only problem is, Peck’s in love with the doctor’s daughter, played by Olivia Thirlby. It’s one thing to buy pot from a guy, it’s another to let him date your offspring. Not that Kingsley’s all that interested a father. Still, Thirlby’s out of Peck’s league – he doesn’t get invited to the parties he provides for — but she gives him a chance one summer when there’s nothing else to do. But she’s mostly bored, and hangs out with Peck – and sleeps with him – just to break up the monotony. Not quite what he had in mind. Kingsley’s also mostly bored, and also hangs out with Peck to break up the monotony. And to pick up girls, like Mary-Kate Olsen, who appears briefly as a flower child willing to bed an old man “just for the experience.” Wonder where Ashley is, and what she’s thinking.
A pattern emerges here. Peck is the dealer, the medicator of a group of people unable or unwilling to deal with their lives, but somewhere in the mix he becomes the medicine as well. Only he doesn’t want to be; he’s not seeing Kingsley because he needs someone to get high with; he’s looking for some help with his life. And, surprisingly, under all the drugs and thug language and gangsta rap, He is honestly in love with Thirlby, and wants to get married and live happily ever after. Take him back thirty years and fill that wheeled cart with fruity ices, and he’d be the same kid. In some ways, “The Wackness” is about the sad loss of that innocence.
While Peck is getting his heart broken, Kingsley is giving up. As the movie progresses, he regresses, acting more and more like a child until finally he is sitting in this living room, writing his name on bone china so his wife won’t take it when she leaves him. Kingsley is clearly having fun with the role: perhaps a little too much fun. He comes across as so kooky and weird that it’s hard to know what’s really going on with this weird old guy.
“The Wackness” takes aim at black comedy, and the end result is more grayish. It’s well-observed, but it just doesn’t have the energy to be really biting or angry. The jokes don’t zing, because once you’ve smoked enough pot, nothing really zings. On the other hand, Levine has a good sense of time and place, and the story he tells grows mostly organically out of that. There are a few unnecessary and distracting directorial flourishes — a thought-bubble fantasy come to life at the beginning, an slow motion sequence involving cops – but these aside, he has directed “The Wackness” with a steady hand and a clear memory for what New York was like in the 90’s. I’ve never been there, but I believe in his vision, and that’s what counts.
- If you lived in New York in the 90’s.
- If you like teenage coming-of-age stories.
- If you were disappointed with “Pineapple Express.”
- if you think street dealers should be hung by their toes.
- if you don’t like mellow indie flicks.