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The Wackness Reviews

Set New York City at the dawn of the Giuliani-era, writer-director Jonathan Levine's second feature is a deeply personal coming-of-age story steeped in heady nostalgia and all the creative myopia that too often comes with it. Manhattan's Upper East Side, 1994. As newly elected mayor Rudolph Giuliani begins his crackdown on all the drug dealers, squeegee men and graffiti artists that have tainted the quality of life in the Big Apple, hip hop-loving high-school grad Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) his just trying to make it through his last summer in the city before he heads off to college. A self-described loser, Luke's minimal contact with the popular kids at his school has only come about because he's their drug dealer, summoned by pager to parties he hasn't been invited to simply to drop off bags of dope. But Luke has gotten close enough to the in-crowd to develop a serious crush on Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), a pretty, popular girl who, during the school year, probably wouldn't deign to hang out with a guy like Luke, let alone date him. Ironically, Luke is a lot closer to Stephanie's stepfather, Dr. Squires (Sir Ben Kingsley), a pot-smoking, prescription-pill popping psychiatrist who barters therapy sessions with Luke for dime bags of weed. Even though Luke tells him he's depressed -- his parents (Talia Balsam, David Wohl) bicker constantly, particularly when it comes to all the money his father recently lost in a bum investment -- Dr. Squires refuses to prescribe the kind of medication of which he himself seems to be so fond. Dr. Squires clearly wants Luke to avoid making the same kind of mistakes he made -- errors in judgment that include a loveless marriage to a cold, chain-smoking socialite (Famke Janssen) and losing sight of his youthful ideals -- and in an unprofessional bit of counter-transference, advises Luke to go out, get high and get laid. Little does he know the girl to whom Luke most wants to lose his virginity is his own step-daughter, Stephanie. As Luke goes about his appointed rounds, meeting such regular clients as hippie-dippy Union (an irritatingly antic Mary-Kate Olsen), and Eleanor (Jane Adams), once a musician with a short-lived and long-forgotten '80s band, Luke soaks in the sights and, perhaps even more importantly, the hip-hop soundtrack of a city once again on the cusp of change. Levine also graduated high school in the spring of 1994 and his film is filled with a wistful yearning for a New York City only a starry-eyed teenager could miss. The best parts of THE WACKNESS center on the perceptive teenage love story: Nickelodeon star Peck neatly redefines his career with a textured, multi-layered performance, and such small, fanciful touches like the squares of sidewalk that glow under love-struck Luke's feet a la Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" video are charmingly inspired. The worst parts involve Sir Ben. With a strange accent that sounds more like Robin Williams than any New Yorker, his overwrought performance brings absolutely nothing new to an unconvincingly written character that already felt cliched when we last saw it in RUNNING WITH SCISSORS.