The Wackness preview

In 1994, an emcee named Nas set a lyrical standard by
dropping the most influential rap album in history. In the same year, nine of
the best underground New York City MCs christened themselves a hip-hop dynasty
called the Wu-Tang Clan, and a heavyweight rapper from Brooklyn
named Biggie Smalls, aka the Notorious B.I.G., dominated not just hip-hop but
all of music. In ’94, radio would think twice to play rap and most rappers
would struggle to go gold. Yet regardless of this struggle, it was the year
when music was raw, vigorous and real.

“The Wackness” takes place in this golden era of hip-hop.
Written and directed by Jonathan Levine, “The Wackness” is
semi-autobiographical, following teenage drug dealer Luke (Josh Peck), who
trades therapy sessions for pot with psychiatrist Dr. Squires (Sir Ben
Kingsley). Aside from being an unabashed tribute to the best year in hip-hop,
the film is an honest look into the lives of two emotionally isolated people
and the steps they take to overcome their loneliness.

While many have already lazily pegged the film a pothead
comedy, doing so overlooks everything that the film does so well. Though
marijuana is an important aspect, it certainly isn’t the film’s focus. Luke’s
pot dealing and Dr. Squires’ pot smoking are both a means of escape and a way
for both characters to confront their immaturity. The movie flourishes,
creating a genuine feel for the characters and the culture surrounding them.
Like hip-hop, marijuana is indicative of the culture.

The authenticity of the film wouldn’t have been achieved
without the convincing performances. Newcomer Josh Peck of “Drake & Josh”
fame delivers a performance that not only makes it hard to believe Peck is a
Nickelodeon alumnus but also makes current Hollywood
fave Shia LaBeouf look like an amateur. And while Kingsley’s performance as the
druggie-psychiatrist is a breath of fresh air from his usual repertoire of
serious roles, at times Peck’s performance outshines the good knight. Credit
also goes to an excellent supporting cast, especially Olivia Thirlby, who was
overlooked in last year’s “Juno” but stands out as the girl who breaks Luke’s
heart. And Kingsley’s makeout session with Mary-Kate Olsen alone could be
reason enough to see it.

Backed by excellent direction and a dense hip-hop soundtrack
with everything from Raekwon, A Tribe Called Quest and even some good ol’ Fresh
Prince, the film overflows with obvious passion, making “The Wackness” all the
more special.

If there’s anything to criticize, it’s that the film goes
overboard with the ’90s references (throwing out two “Forrest Gump” allusions),
and while it’s understandable to create relatable characters, sometimes even
the most honest of emotions can seem drawn out. Perhaps not as witty as last
winter’s indie hit “Juno,” “The Wackness” still proves in every way to be more
substantial and, ultimately, more authentic. July 3.