Fans of kid’s entertainment may be a little take aback at the latest role for Josh Peck. The former star of the Nickelodeon comedy for kids Drake & Josh has shed the goofiness of the TV series, but not all of his teen angst for his big screen starring role.
Set in New York in 1994 The Wackness focuses on an unpopular and troubled high school student named Luke Shapiro (Peck). To make ends meet Luke sells pot to a ragtag bunch of regular clients, including Dr. Jeffrey Squires (Ben Kingsley), a psychiatrist who trades therapy sessions for weed. At their meetings the pair realize that despite the great gap in their ages their lives are running a parallel course. Their relationship becomes strained when Dr. Squires’ marriage runs into trouble and Luke starts dating the doctor’s step-daughter (Juno’s Olivia Thirlby).
The Wackness is a coming of age story, the kind of thing we have seen many times before, but despite some familiar situations the movie is much more satisfying than many others in the genre.
Using a great deal of personality in his direction Jonathan Levine creates a sense of time and place. From the sultry summer heat of Union Square as Luke makes his rounds to the cool reserve of the doctor’s Upper West Side office to Luke’s crack-pot customers he skillfully incorporates New York City as a character in the piece. As a result The Wackness presents a universal story—without the sugary sweet tone of many coming-of-age stories—that could only have happened in this very specific place.
Best of all though are the performances. Lately Ben Kingsley has turned into one of those British actors who will accept almost any role offered to him. Like Michael Caine, another actor who never met a role he wouldn’t take, Kingsley is a masterful actor who often wastes his gifts on projects that are beneath him. For every Sexy Beast on his resume there’s a BloodRayne or Thunderbirds movie. Any more roles like The Love Guru and old Sir Ben just might be asked to renounce his knighthood.
Happily in The Wackness he essays a role equal to his abilty. His Dr. Squires is a complicated character, one part randy old hippie, one part wise health care professional and one part over-the-top neurotic. The beauty of the performance is that Kingsley pushes each element of Squires’ personality to the limit but keeps him completely believable and by the end, even sympathetic.
Josh Peck, in his first serious young adult role, does something remarkable; he doesn’t let Kingsley steal the show. In a low key performance he radiates charisma as a guy who, as his kind-of girlfriend Liz says, only sees the “wackness” (the downside) in everything and not the “dopeness.” His take on Luke is believable and empathetic and should connect with teen and young adult audiences.
The Wackness covers ground we’ve seen before—the heartbreak of first love—but does so in a surprisingly fresh and interesting way.
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