It seems, having already heaped praise on Disney Channel for giving screen time and commercial success to everyone from Ricky Ullman and Jesse McCartney to Zac Efron and the Jonas Brothers, I’ll now have to turn my attention to rival Nickelodeon. At least that’s where Josh Peck, the breakout star of recent coming-of-age theatrical The Wackness, launched his career. From what I can gather from reading about Drake and Josh, the family-oriented sitcom he co-starred in with Drake Bell, today’s Josh Peck carry only the slightest resemblance to the Josh of yesteryear. First, he’s not a chubby (possibly even overweight) kid anymore. At 21, he’s slimmed down and has grown into considerable hotness. Secondly, The Wackness makes it perfectly clear he’s not a kid anymore, period. Movies about dealing pot, stitching your family together and palling around with quasi-suicidal old shrinks tend to hammer home that point.
Peck plays Luke, an 18 year old hiphop-loving slacker, who uses the summer of 1994 to ramp up his pot dealing, in order to (secretly) help out with his family’s financial troubles. During the summer months he pays regular visits to his client, Dr. Squires (Sir Ben Kingsley), whose daughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby) he falls madly in love with. As it turns out, Squires himself seems to have come to a fork in the road, and as the two them try to make sense of what their respective futures hold for them, they bond over a common love for music and marihuana. However, such brief plot summaries tend to do severe injustice to any movie, and The Wackness is no exception. For instance, you might get the impression that this is merely another somehat quirky stoner movie, and nothing could be further from the truth. I absolutely hate stoner movies (Dude, Where’s My Car, Smiley Face etc), and The Wackness is no stoner. The drugs certainly help ease the relationship between Luke and Squires, but as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that it’s only a minor part of it. If Squires at first is mostly a way for Luke to get to his daughter, their relationship soon develops into one of mutual dependence. Luke needs Squires to keep his mind straight, and Squires needs Luke to inject some new impulses into his tired life. At one point Stephanie mockingly asks Luke if he and her father are gay together, and I get what she’s meaning. Although (thankfully) there’s no physical attraction between the two men, the portrayal of their relationship is sufficiently nuanced as to make us believe that it’s perfectly natural for them to confide in each other.
More than a stoner movie then, The Wackness is a coming-of-age story and a love story. Though slackery, Peck manages to make Luke seem like someone a girl like Stephanie could actually fall for. He is far more insecure than he gives away at first glance, and that’s probably what makes him so charming. Watching from outside the fictional universe, and not needing to know exactly what kind of guy he is, I fell in love with him before Stephanie did (there really is something about that voice), of course, but when she finally does, it adds up nicely. For a while, at least. The first-love-ness of the whole thing carries with it a lot of emotional intensity, but to me The Wackness stays clear of the worst cliches, because, at critical moments, it never fails to back off a bit and bring things closer to earth, by injecting a joke or quirk. I guess many people will hate it for that, but considering it never gets cynical about it, I think it’s a wise move.
Also, The Wackness is the closest we’ve come to an ode to the early nineties since Cameron Crowe’s Singles, and I suspect that movie earned its status as a tribute to the grunge generation more from the cultural significance later attributed to it, than from actually wanting to be seen as an ode to the early nineties. It’s hard not to see The Wackness as a more explicit argument for why it was interesting to come of age at that time, particularly in 1994; early on, Luke makes fun of people who listen to Kriss Kross (giggle) one week, only to switch to Pearl Jam the next; people cling to their gameboys; emotional distress could still easily be attributed to Kurt Cobain’s death; Boys II Men was a household name, etc. Oh, and Method Man, as a kind of intertextual reference, plays Luke’s supplier.
Some critics have said that The Wackness is too preoccupied with being a kind of 1994 period piece, but that’s actually one of the things I like most about it. I was nine years old back then, and I actually listened to Kriss Kross (not Pearl Jam, though). I never ever thought they would come up as a pop culture reference again, but wham, there you have it. It’s like the 1990’s movie version of Everybody Hates Chris. That has to count for something.
Finally, Josh Peck actually reminds me somewhat of Adrian Grenier, who plays Vince Chase on HBO’s consistently brilliant comedy Entourage. Chase, of course, is modeled on the experiences of one-time rapper Marky Mark, perhaps better known these days as Mark Wahlberg. While probably not an intertextual reference as such, at least it’s a mildly amusing coincidence.