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Originally published Friday, July 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"The Wackness" tries too hard to be hip

In "The Wackness," Ben Kingsley gives a comic performance in a sad movie — and it doesn't quite fit, says reviewer Moira Macdonald.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 2 stars

"The Wackness," with Ben Kingsley, Josh Peck, Famke Janssen, Olivia Thirlby, Mary-Kate Olsen, Jane Adams, Method Man, Aaron Yoo. Written and directed by Jonathan Levine. 110 minutes. Rated R for pervasive drug use, language and some sexuality. Guild 45th, Uptown.

In "The Wackness," Sir Ben Kingsley gives a comic performance in what's essentially a sad movie, and while he keeps things interesting, he also throws the entire project off-balance. The film, written and directed by Jonathan Levine, is a coming-of-age tale set in 1994 Manhattan. Young Luke Shapiro (raspy-voiced Josh Peck) escapes his unhappy family through his last-summer-before-college job: dealing pot from a little vendor cart. Sad-eyed and draggy, he alternates working hours with visits to his therapist Dr. Squires (Kingsley), who's happy to be paid in weed.

Setting a film 14 years in the past is a tricky proposition (it's not far enough away to be truly nostalgic, or close enough to be forefront in memory), and "The Wackness" is crammed full of mid-'90s hip-hop and cultural references, just to make sure that we get it. (Dr. Squires, suspiciously eyeing a very depressed Luke: "Does this have something to do with Kurt Cobain?") But its story is a familiar one, whatever the decade. Luke falls in love, inconveniently, with Dr. Squires' stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby, the perky best friend from "Juno"). "I got mad love for you," he tells her. "I wanna listen to, like, Boyz II Men when I'm with you." Things turn out, alas, about as well as 18-year-old romance usually does.

Levine finds a few striking details along the way; such as a nighttime scene when, after kissing Stephanie, Luke dances on the sidewalk and its squares light up the night like a disco floor. But "The Wackness" eventually sags under its self-conscious hipness and the weight of all its draggy, zonked-out characters (among them Mary-Kate Olsen, Jane Adams and a cigarette-smoke-choked Famke Janssen). Only Kingsley, his posture erect and his hair flowing like Beethoven's, finds a weirdly quivery energy. Amid all the other characters' gloom, he's a gleam of fun.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725

or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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