Luke Shapiro, the depressed high school grad at the center of "The Wackness," labors to be more than just your average white homeboy in 1994 New York City. Occasionally he succeeds. He drops the hip-hop qualifier "mad" (read: very) into every third remark, peddles drugs from an Italian ices cart to second-generation flower children in Central Park and trades dope with his psychiatrist in exchange for bonus therapy minutes.
As played by Josh Peck, a compelling young actor with a sandpaper voice and a bulbous jaw that looks as if it were from an Al Hirschfeld caricature, Luke channels the wounded-bird spirit of every toughie who walked Warner Bros.' gangster streets in the 1930s.
Would that Jonathan Levine's second feature had been served up with the no-nonsense directness of that period. Emulating its hero's recklessly independent spirit, "The Wackness" aspires to be something more than your average psychiatrist-bashing, dysfunctional-parents coming-of-age dramedy à la "Running With Scissors." It snows us with more visual flash than it knows what to do with: still photos that come alive, sidewalk panels that light up disco-fashion when Luke dances upon them and a brown-filter lens that makes all of New York look like a bagel that's been left in the toaster oven too long.
Beneath all of this stylistic filigree is an odd-couple buddy flick that tracks the deepening camaraderie between Luke and his stunningly incompetent shrink. Dr. Squires (a goateed, stringy-haired Ben Kingsley, doing some weird homage to Harvey Keitel) is a serial rule-breaker too ravaged from drugs and an unfulfilled marriage to honor professional boundaries. Seeing a kindred spirit in his wayward client, Squires indulges in bong hits before Luke is barely out the door of his office and takes him on boozy bar crawls in search of one-night stands.
Like the cocky protagonist of "Charlie Bartlett," who pursues the principal's daughter, the virginal Luke has his eye on the wrong girl: Squires' cool-hearted, sexually precocious stepdaughter, Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby). Levine saddles all of the women in "The Wackness" with nearly as much psychic baggage as Luke and Squires, albeit with less screen time in which to flesh them out.
The press notes for "The Wackness" enumerate the political and cultural highlights of New York in 1994, omitting the off-off-Broadway premiere of Danny Hoch's galvanizing one-man show, "Some People," which took only seven or eight minutes to encapsulate the white hip-hop subculture that Levine wrestles with for the length of a feature. "The Wackness" is ultimately less evocative of pre-Sept. 11 Manhattan than it is of post-Sept. 11 Park City, Utah, where the film had its Sundance debut, and where festival audiences never tire of rebel-male angst and bluesy, guitar-inflected scoring.
See the trailer and find local showtimes for "The Wackness."