It seems odd to wax nostalgic about the year 1994, not just because so little time has passed between then and now, but because the particulars of the period—the music, the fashions, the language, the politics—are so hazy and elusive. If nothing else, Jonathan Levine's coming-of-age film The Wackness evokes the summer of '94 with impressive particularity; it's one thing to get the look and sound of the time right, but Levine also captures the atmosphere of fear and loathing in Rudy Giuliani's New York, where the task of "cleaning up" the city swept too much under the rug. With such a rich backdrop in place, it's a shame that Levine brings so little of interest to the fore—instead, he centers on a mopey teenage drug pusher whose mind seems perpetually clouded in pot smoke. He's a bore, and the movie bores along with him.
In the summer following his high-school graduation, Upper East Side screw-up Josh Peck makes a few bucks selling grass out of a beat-up pushcart advertising "f esh & del cious ices." (It's the middle of summer, yet no one ever asks him for these flavored treats, which speaks to the transparency of his operation.) While in school, Peck was what he describes as "the most popular of the unpopular," and he tends to tread lightly and leave little impression, which may explain why he has few friends and is technically still a virgin. Bummed by his situation, Peck seeks counsel from nutty psychiatrist Ben Kingsley, who accepts him as a client in exchange for weed, and becomes his closest confidant. Peck also develops a friendship with Kingsley's step-daughter Olivia Thirlby (Juno), whose hippie-dippie free-spiritedness brings him out of his shell.
The Wackness' main draw is Kingsley's giddily over-the-top performance as a pothead, and the film delights in showing Gandhi sparking a huge bong or making out with Mary-Kate Olsen in a phone booth. Yet it's paced much more to Peck's brooding wavelength, and like a lot of movies with passive protagonists, it inevitably goes slack. Only in one lovely sequence, when Peck and Thirlby escape for a romantic weekend on Fire Island, does the film come alive, in part because its hero finally sees past his own navel. Most of the time, Peck is cast adrift in an uncertain world, and Levine too often conflates his lack of purpose with the movie's.