Nostalgia ain't what it used to be, but try telling that to writer-director Jonathan Levine, who's reached all the way back to 1994 for his somewhat autobiographical coming-of-age movie The Wackness. You may have forgotten the words "dope" and "wack." It may have been a while since you started a sentence with "Yo." Your pair of Air Jordans may be long gone or safely tucked away on the top shelf of your closet. But here they all are, offering a time-machine ride to an era that only seems like it was yesterday. And out of such artifacts, but especially out of his memories of the summer he spent maneuvering between high school and college, Levine has fashioned his very own Catcher in the Rye, a movie about surviving in a world where everybody's a phony or a jerk or both.
Josh Peck, having escaped the Nickelodeon ghetto, plays Luke Shapiro, a lonely, depressed kid on Manhattan's Upper East Side who sells pot to make ends meet. Still not sure whether he was the least popular of the popular kids or the most popular of the unpopular kids, Luke is trying to put high school behind him, but there's so much unfinished business, like getting laid. Yeah, I know, another getting-laid movie, but Levine isn't serving up slices of American Pie. He's both much more serious and much sillier than that. He wants to convey exactly what it felt like to heft himself over the threshold of adulthood, but he also wants to show how crazy it all was. Which brings us to Dr. Jeffrey Squires, a nut-job psychiatrist played by Ben Kingsley. Luke is one of Squires' clients. Of course, Squires is also one of Luke's clients.
They even work on a barter system - 48 minutes of therapy for a quarter ounce of pot - and Squires isn't above firing up a bong before the 48 minutes are up. But shrink-client-dealer only begins to describe the relationship between these two as the movie develops. Kingsley, who's spent the whole rest of his career trying to erase the picture of Gandhi from our minds, comes up with another portrait for his rogue's gallery of misfits and nitwits. But there's a desperation, a deep sadness to Squires, that makes his age-inappropriate behavior easier to take. He also happens to be the stepfather of the girl that Luke, in way over his head, has set his sights on. Her name is Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), and Luke doesn't seem to realize that she's the type who will chew him up and spit him out. Or maybe he doesn't care. Better to be chewed up and spit out than never to have been chewed up at all.
Thirlby, who was the best friend in Juno, knows just how to play a child of privilege who would sign up for a summer fling out of boredom. And Levine handles the push-pull dynamic between Luke and Stephanie like someone who's been on the receiving end. But it's Peck, as the Holden Caulfield of our East Side Story, who keeps The Wackness on the dope side of things. He's way, way too good-looking to convince us that Luke's still in need of deflowering, but he's got the early-'90s homeboy thing down, and he knows how to underplay, let the camera seek him out. He also knows how to convey the vulnerability underneath male bluster. When Luke makes the mistake of telling Stephanie he's in love with her, her response is "Whoa, dude," and you can see it all over his face: Whoa is me.
Levine raids the '90s time capsule a little too greedily at times. ("I gotta bounce, I'm almost out of Zima," someone says.) And the visits to Luke's drug supplier seem out of some Cheech and Chong movie compared to the serio-comic tone Levine establishes everywhere else. But The Wackness is the real thing, a look back that gives off a sense of actual lived experience, no matter how strangely some of the characters behave. And it has a nice perspective on the use of drugs - not just-say-no, not just-say-yes, just the acknowledgment that lots of people use them and use them for a reason. It appears everybody in New York was listening to Prozac back in 1994, before a couple of planes roused them from their slumbers, but The Wackness shows that with the right friends, or even with the wrong ones, you could somehow muddle through.