I was pretty impressed with director John Levine's debut film, the retro-slasher horror throwback known as All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, and so logically I was looking forward to the filmmaker's follow-up project. Unfortunately, Mr. Levine chose to not only direct his sophomore effort, but write it too. And that's where most of the problems start. Based only on his first two films, it's pretty clear that Levine has a gift for the visual side of the equation -- but as far as the writing goes...
The Wackness (yes, that's the actual title, and wait till you hear the actual dialog that inspired the title) feels like something that was written by a bored 17-year-old during one lazy afternoon in detention. And while it's safe to assume that much of The Wackness is based on Levine's own experiences, the potential realism is consistently undone by the writer's affection for cliche, stereotype, and completely unrealistic behavior. A potentially poignant moment is followed by a really obvious drug gag, which is then followed by some small chunk of speech-making that never once sounds like something a human would say.
The plot is this: Luke is a pot dealer who befriends a psychiatrist and then falls in love with the shrink's step-daughter. But what could have made for a perfectly amiable character-based comedy suffers from a string of unnecessary scenes, a few too many facile "life lessons," and a sidekick character who feels like he fell out of a cartoon. When the broken hearts and broken families start rearing their heads, The Wackness veers from wacky to maudlin without missing a beat. And I don't exactly mean that in a good way.
Lead actor Josh Peck never once allows the viewer to "like" him, which makes his personal and romantic travails all the more boring. As Luke's unlikely best pal, Ben Kingsley manages to steal the whole movie with very little effort -- but he does it mainly by delivering up some out-of-left-field volleys of one-liner druggie material. Sure, Kingsley is a lot of fun in a broad and amusing way -- but I thought we were watching an allegedly poignant film about one kid's trip from punk to (relative) grown-up.
The length is another matter altogether. One cannot imagine why a film with this premise and this tone needs to run over 110 minutes in length, but to me, it feels like a filmmaker more in love with his own stuff than he is in reaching an audience. Trim a good twenty minutes from this overlong exercise, and you'd help the comedic pacing a whole lot. (And it's not like the movie doesn't have a few "losable" scenes.) This tale might mean a whole lot to the writer, but as a movie, honestly, we've seen all of this stuff before.
Recommendable for Kingsley's inspired (if somewhat out of place) performance and some surprisingly strong work from young Olivia Thirlby, The Wackness is a fine 85-minute comedy/drama that's stuck inside a too-large frame. It's got some great zingers, a couple moments of honest emotion, and a few entertaining performances. But that's about it. Oh, and if you're living only to see Oscar-winner Ben Kingsley suck face with one of the Olsen twins, The Wackness is an absolute must-see. But seriously: Change the title.