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The Wackness (R) **

Mary-Kate Olsen, left, and Ben Kingsley are shown in a scene from, "The Wackness." Photo: JoJo Whilden.
Mary-Kate Olsen, left, and Ben Kingsley are shown in a scene from, "The Wackness." Photo: JoJo Whilden.

By Rene Rodriguez, The Miami Herald

The Wackness is set in the summer of 1994, when Forrest Gump ads lined the sides of New York City buses, O.J. Simpson led police on a wild chase in his white Bronco, rock fans were still reeling from Kurt Cobain’s suicide and a teenage pot-dealer named Luke (Josh Peck) was on his last vacation before heading off to college.

Initially, writer-director Jonathan Levine primes up for something different than the usual last-summer-before-adulthood cliches. The movie opens during a session between the depressed Luke and his even more depressed shrink Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley), who treats the boy in exchange for quarter-ounce bags of marijuana. ”Life has a funny way of turning you into the one thing you don’t want to be,” the stoned doc tells the teen, who doesn’t yet know what he wants to do with his life but definitely doesn’t want to turn out like his constantly bickering, perenially cash-strapped parents (David Wohl and Talia Balsam).

Luke is also tired of being lonely — he’s popular only when he’s standing at the door of his clients — and when he develops a crush on Squires’ daughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), he decides to take his doctor up on his previous advice of having some fun and ”getting laid.” It’s at that point that The Wackness starts its path down the conventional, ho-hum route of coming-of-age cliches. Even though Levine keeps the tone unusually grim — the movie is shot primarily in dark, overcast lighting and Squires’ dead-end marriage to an emotionally absent wife (Famke Janssen) gets considerable screen time — it all feels like detailwork to disguise the formulaic nature of this material.

The Wackness is at its best simply when it sends Luke (winningly played by Peck, all grown up from Nickelodeon’s Drake & Josh series) into a New York populated by lonely potheads (Jane Adams registers strongly as one of Luke’s more eccentric customers) and high-as-a-kite free spirits (such as an unrecognizable Mary-Kate Olsen as a flower child left over from the 1960s). This is the second film by Levine, whose first, the effective slasher flick All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, remains unreleased. The Wackness marks a step up in ambition, but it is also self-indulgent and needlessly complicated for what it ultimately delivers: a somber John Hughes picture scored to A Tribe Called Quest and Mary J. Blige.

Cast: Josh Peck, Ben Kingsley, Olivia Thirlby, Famke Janssen, Talia Balsam, David Wohl, Mary-Kate Olsen, Jane Adams, Method Man

Writer-director: Jonathan Levine

Producers: Keith Calder, Felipe Marino, Joe Neurauter

A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 110 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, sexual situations, drug use, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: South Beach, Aventura; in Broward: Paradise; in Palm Beach: Parisian.