The Wackness is … Ack! Yes, Even with Sir Ben Kingsley

rex lede The Wackness is ... Ack! Yes, Even with Sir Ben Kingsley TheWackness
Running time 110 minutes
Written and directed by Jonathan Levine
Starring Josh Peck, Ben Kingsley, Olivia Thirlby, Famke Janssen, Mary-Kate Olsen

Not the least of the problems facing people who write about movies on a weekly basis is the deadlines. You can’t say, “I think I’d rather go to the beach today.” The empty space looms at you like a computerized monster, always demanding to be filled with your words, whether you have anything to say or not. Also, they say as you get older your attention span shortens. I don’t know about that, but I can promise you as sure as Monday follows the weekend that as the world changes and filmmakers get younger, the quality of motion pictures has diminished, and I find very few movies of worthwhile value to hold my interest. Writing about movies has become a chore, not a pleasure.

And so the Fourth of July holiday now brings a whole new batch of rubbish that is not worth coming in from the barbecue to write about. You can start with a mutton-headed waste of time called The Wackness that is every bit as moronic and meaningless as its title. You see them all the time: movies that just don’t move or signify or engage. This is one of them. Set in 1994 for no reason except that’s the year the film’s incompetent writer-director, Jonathan Levine, graduated from high school, it stars a doughy wonk with a face like a Big Mac bun named Josh Peck, as a teenage drug dealer named Luke, who trades weed for sessions with a zonked-out shrink named Dr. Squires. Sad to see Ben Kingsley trashing his reputation to play this stoned therapist, who looks like a Bowery bum as he pumps a dreadlocked Lolita (Mary-Kate Olsen) in a phone booth and dispenses mush-tongued jabberwocky in a fog of marijuana. The doctor (prove it) is an old degenerate who lusts after little girls; snorts and smokes every drug he can get his hands on; and blames everything on Giuliani. I guess it’s no coincidence that 1994 is also the inaugural year of New York’s right-wing mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who declared war on graffiti, nudity in museums, and portable radios. Instead of cracking down on Times Square porno flicks, he should have dragged in junk peddlers like the pair of goony, intergenerational protagonists at the center of this empty narrative.

Never-endingly desperate for more dope, Dr. Squires follows Luke around New York in a semi-horizontal haze while passing off his stepdaughter as a cure for his patient’s sex crisis. Drug dealers usually have no problem being popular or getting laid. Luke is the exception, and the reasons are obvious. For starters, he can scarcely form complete sentences. While Dr. Squires gives him step-by-step advice on how to get into his own stepdaughter’s pants, it’s also obvious why his long-suffering wife (Famke Janssen) eventually walks out. (As though in unison, the audience asks the same question: What took her so long?) Meanwhile, Luke engages Dr. Squires as his partner, as they sell their illegal wares from an Italian ice cream wagon. If nothing else, The Wackness will make you think twice the next time you see the Good Humor Man. Dr. Squires takes his miserable wife away for an outing while her daughter takes Luke to Fire Island for some awkward, mentally challenged mattress maneuvers, but nothing ever happens. What you get is dull, colorless characters played by uninteresting actors who shrug and mutter “whatever” when an issue is raised. You also get sophomoric, self-conscious dialogue and gimmicky, speeded-up camerawork that signifies the kind of self-indulgent filmmaking that usually premieres at Sundance and always successfully manages to camouflage all attempts at any deeper “meaning.” The girl gets bored. Dr. Squires’ wife dumps him. Luke’s father loses all of his family money and moves Luke to New Jersey, where, I assume, he grows up to direct The Wackness. Like the new breed of 20-somethings with no story to tell and no idea how to tell it if they had one, Jonathan Levine is clueless, and The Wackness goes nowhere fast. It just hangs.

rreed@observer.com