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The Wackness

Legend has it that back in 1971, there was a group of five teenaged athletes in San Rafael, California. They called themselves the “Waldos,” after the wall outside school where they hung out. And on one autumn day, they heard tell of a cannabis crop that had been left abandoned by the Point Reyes Peninsula Coast Guard station. They decided to go looking for it, though the mission of course had to be secret. So they frequently agreed to meet at a nearby statue of Louis Pasteur at 4:20 pm, after practice.

They never did find the cannabis crop, though they got stoned off their asses all the same.

By some twist of fate, one of the Waldos’ fathers managed real estate for the Grateful Dead. Another Waldo’s brother managed a Dead sideband and frequently smoked pot with bassist Phil Lesh. Somehow (reports and memories as to how are hazy at best, imagine that), members of the Grateful Dead overheard the phrase “four-twenty” being used as a code for “smoking pot,” and the rest is history.

In the time since, “four-twenty” has been used as a code, as a rallying cry, and as an inside joke in pop culture. You can find it everywhere, from Pulp Fiction┬áto “Family Guy.” One person — name of Evan Goding — got to be a contestant on “The Price is Right,” then bid either $420 or $1,420 on everything. He became a YouTube sensation overnight. Even better, when California voters approved a medical marijuana law in 1996, the California Legislature codified it with a bill designated… wait for it… “SB 420.”

With all of that going on, it should be no surprise that someone realized “4/20” was also a date. As a result, the day of April 20th is informally observed as a day to celebrate, consume, and advocate for the legalization of marijuana. The counter-culture holiday is typically observed in North America (especially in Canada and California), though demonstrations have been held as far away as New Zealand.

So here’s a review of The Wackness, a coming-of-age drama about a young pot dealer, presented in recognition of this auspicious day. And also because it’s a godawful weekend for new releases.

Our stage is set in New York City, back in the summer of 1994. Here we meet Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck), who’s the very picture of a disenfranchised youth. He’s all set to (barely) graduate high school, which is fine by him because he doesn’t like anyone there. He hates his parents, he hates his classmates, and if he’s ever had a girlfriend, he’s never gotten laid. He smokes hard and drinks harder, though it must not be for social reasons because the guy doesn’t have any friends. Luke is also listening to cassettes, playing NES, and enjoying other entertainment that would’ve been considered retro even by mid-90s standards.

To sum up, Luke is a teenager without any direction in life, with no intimate knowledge of women, who absolutely refuses to grow up. He’s like Holden Caulfied, but constantly horny.

Something else about Luke is that he deals marijuana. In fact, given that his parents are a couple of bickering numbskulls a hair’s breadth from getting the family evicted, Luke is probably the only one in his household who’s making any money (they think he’s selling ice cream, of course). One of his many clients is a psychiatrist — Dr. Jeffrey Squires, played by Ben Kingsley — who trades Luke therapy sessions for pot. No way this can go wrong, huh?

Sure enough, Dr. Squires’ stepdaughter turns out to be Luke’s love interest, the hard-partying Stephanie Squires (Olivia Thirlby). Her mom is Kristin Squires, whose marriage with Jeff goes in a downward spiral throughout the film. Other supporting characters include Method Man as Luke’s supplier and Mary-Kate Olsen as a hippie named Union who buys from Luke.

The cast in this movie is extraordinary, though it helps that they’re given such rich material to work with. Take Luke, for example. One of the reasons why his life is so screwed up is because of how short-sighted he is. Never mind that he’s still young and his whole life is ahead of him, he’s unhappy because his life sucks right now. This becomes even more apparent as his relationship with Stephanie unfolds. He’s absolutely confident that he’s in love with her, even though they’ve only known each other for a couple of months and she’s the first girl who’s ever shown interest in him. So naturally, when the heartbreak hits, it hits all the harder.

Then there’s the matter of Dr. Squires. Here’s a guy who doesn’t have any kids of his own, so he takes it on himself to be a father figure for Luke and Stephanie both. Partly, this means that he’s living vicariously through them, encouraging them both to get into trouble, have sex, and do drugs, just like he did back in the day. Unfortunately, these are all the things that led him to at least one marriage that started passionately before imploding. So he also encourages Luke and Steph to avoid making the mistakes he made. It’s a fascinating hypocrisy, which provides a ton of internal conflict for Ben Kingsley to work wonders with.

Rounding out the lead cast is Stephanie. Like Luke, Steph is very much a creature of the moment. She’s young, she’s carefree, and she doesn’t have any boundaries. The difference is that Steph is more of an optimist. She has more confidence. She can find some potential for enjoyment in just about any situation. Alas — again, like Luke — Steph proves to be very short-sighted, and she doesn’t seem to think about the consequences of what she does. Moreover, where Luke tends to draw out his moments of extreme agony or ecstasy, Steph just seems to shrug off those moments and start looking for the next ones.

There’s a lot of great chemistry between the two romantic leads. They have so much in common that it’s easy to see how they’d enjoy spending time together. On the other hand, it’s equally easy to see how their faults split them apart. The romance is very well-written and wonderfully acted.

Of course, the cast isn’t completely without fault. Mary-Kate Olsen turns in some very enjoyable work, but her character is ultimately pointless. Method Man’s character, on the other hand, is vital to the plot and the performance is a surprising amount of fun to watch, which makes it all the more frustrating that he only got two scenes.

Still, the weak link is unquestionably Famke Janssen. Not that it’s her fault, though. I could clearly tell that Janssen was putting in a great deal of effort toward crafting a memorable performance, but the script gave her nothing to work with. It’s implied through dialogue that Mrs. Squires had a great deal of wild times with her husband, but why they ended and how she came to be so devoid of passion are matters left unexplored. Then again, it’s possible that I might not have heard the reason, since her dialogue was made inaudibly soft for some reason. In a character drama that so beautifully manages to get into its characters’ heads, Kristin’s opaqueness sticks out like a sore thumb.

Fortunately, the script does redeem itself in other aspects. One such aspect is the comedy, which is nicely spread throughout the film. Perhaps my favorite example is Jeff’s dog, which is named “Jesus Christ.” As in “Jesus Christ, don’t pee on that!” Of course, there’s also a great deal of humor in watching the characters get totally stoned, but it isn’t exactly “stoner humor.” It’s a much darker kind of humor, almost gallows humor. These characters are getting into ridiculous situations and saying stupid things while completely wasting themselves, and the movie addresses that. It’s a peculiar sort of dramedy that the movie uses to great effect, especially during the climax.

Far better is in how this film utilizes its period setting. This is a movie that absolutely wallows in retro, with particular reverence for ’90s rap and rock music (Biggie Smalls and Kurt Cobain both get a lot of love here). More than that, the film also gives shout-outs to Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, and several others in that vein. There’s also a lot of ’90s lingo that might have come off as forced if the actors didn’t sell it so well. To me, this focus on the past serves to reinforce the movie’s theme of nostalgia. It dovetails nicely with Jeff’s yearning to recapture his younger days, as well as Luke’s initial dislike for his transition into the so-called “real world.” That latter point could be symbolized with the crime crackdown of the Giuliani era, which is something else that the film plays up considerably. And of course, it wouldn’t be a period NYC movie without a sweet little shot of the WTC towers standing tall.

Also on the subject of visuals, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we get some trippy segments here and there. The movie will occasionally treat us to daydream sequences, blurry shots, and other little flourishes. There’s a particular “Billie Jean” homage that works especially well to this effect. These touches are all very creative, but the film could have used more of them. It could have and should have gone further in that direction. For one thing, as much as the attempt to get us into the characters’ heads was admirable, it just didn’t quite work for me. It didn’t adequately sell the peril of drug use in an immersive way, compared to films like Requiem for a Dream or Trainspotting. I’ll grant that those movies were dealing with far worse drugs, but still.

For another thing, there’s a voice-over at the beginning in which Luke tells us absolutely everything about himself. If the voice-over had continued, this might have been used to establish a window with which to peer into our protagonist’s thoughts. But since it’s the only voice-over in the film, it’s just lazy storytelling.

Still, this is a coming-of-age tale, and stories of this genre live and die on one thing: The protagonist’s development arc. In coming-of-age tales, it’s especially crucial that the leading character should end as a visibly stronger and more mature character, and that the growth from beginning to end unfold in a plausible and sympathetic manner. In that regard, the movie works very well. Josh Peck does a fine job of selling the character’s development, and there are few great scenes here and there to show just how far the character’s come.

As a movie about drug use, there are certainly many other and better films than The Wackness. As a coming-of-age story, the film succeeds, but doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel in the process. Overall, the movie’s true strengths lie in its solid moments of comedy and creativity, in addition to its affectionately retro feel and its rock-solid leading cast. The film isn’t anywhere near as good as 50/50 (the film that writer/director Jonathan Levine went on to make after this one), but I’d say it’s worth a watch all the same.

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