Review: A taste of modern immaturity 

Whether due to a fluke or a flair on the part of its creator, "The Wackness" is a surprisingly enjoyable comedy from the generally rusty spout devoted to the coming-of-age story. There is little that is extraordinary in this boy-meets-world indie, but the film combines and seasons its stock ingredients winningly.

Writer-director Jonathan Levine ("All the Boys Love Mandy Lane") presents teen-angst, first-love, dubious-mentor and buddy-misadventure components in this sophomore feature, which has a hip-hop look and soundtrack.

The setting is 1994 New York. Pagers beep, Tupac’s alive and Rudy Giuliani’s cleanup crusade is happening.

Everything from loud radios to graffiti is targeted.

College-bound, dazed-looking Luke (Josh Peck) lives with his cash-strapped parents, whose bickering he escapes by immersing himself in hip-hop and selling marijuana. Luke trades pot for psychotherapy sessions with zonked-out, long-haired Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley).

Squires lives out his dreams through Luke and takes him on a bar crawl filled with sex, substance and other opportunities likely to rankle Giuliani’s team.

Luke also falls for Squires’ stepdaughter, Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), a teen hedonist who explains the film’s title. She’s the "dopeness" and he’s the "wackness," she tells Luke, describing her positivism and his depressive nature.

That’s about as deep as things get in this movie, which suffers from Levine’s tendency to get overcool or show-offy. There’s nothing wrong with the hip-hop dialogue, jazzy visuals, abundant period detail or even Mary-Kate Olsen as a neo-hippie who makes out with Squires. But these factors upstage Levine’s smarter and convincingly human elements.

Fortunately, though, enough worthy material exists to enable the film to succeed as a vital, funny look at connective spark and at the people who enrich and nick our formative psyches. Sparkling intimate moments, including a heartbreak scene, highlight the space between the predictable dots.

The casting ranges from solid to either lucky or inspired. Peck conveys essential unease beneath his low-key exterior.

Kingsley, rivaling Christopher Walken for ubiquitousness, demonstrates that a good actor when miscast can be more riveting than a shallow thespian in a dream role. While not really believable as a New York-accented disgrace to his shingle, Kingsley’s a supremely original, colorful, off-kilter presence.

The women, who include Famke Janssen as Squires’ unhappy wife, have less to do. Thirlby, with the best-developed material, fares brightest. Jane Adams appears briefly as a drug customer who, like the guys, reflects Levine’s penchant for lost souls.

CREDITS

The Wackness

3 stars

Starring: Josh Peck, Ben Kingsley, Olivia Thirlby, Famke Janssen

Written and directed by: Jonathan Levine

Rated: R

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes

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Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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