Take an Oscar-winning screen veteran. Match him with a teen star from Nickelodeon. Who do you think comes out on top?
If it's Ben Kingsley, Josh Peck and The Wackness we're talking about, the answer might surprise you.
The year is 1994, and high school senior Luke Shapiro is in a sort of defensive funk as he introduces himself to the camera.
He's lonely, though he won't admit it, and fatalistic in the way of teenagers everywhere: "Tomorrow my life changes," he says, monotone. "Tomorrow I graduate. And then I go to my safety school. And then I get older. And then I die."
It's a life plan, of sorts.
As played by Josh Peck, Luke's a pretty together kid. His biggest complaint, really, is that girls barely notice him unless they're looking to buy marijuana.
He's a dope dealer, hoping to put himself through college with the profits — he has thousands saved up already. And one of his best customers is his analyst (Kingsley), who trades him therapy sessions for weed.
That's right: The doctor's receiving the drugs, not prescribing them — and sometimes smoking them during the sessions. Hard to say who's getting better value from that deal.
As you may be gathering, Dr. Squires has some issues of his own. And if he knew that his stepdaughter was the girl of Luke's dreams, his advice — "You're just not trying hard enough" — might be a little different.
Kingsley plays the doctor as a man in such midlife-crisis overdrive, that you'd think he'd run away with The Wackness. But Peck, who began his acting career comparatively recently as a pudgy Nickelodeon sitcom star, more than holds his own.
Slimmed down since his TV days, and oddly confident in Luke's insecurity, he dominates the proceedings with dweeby, open-mouthed charm.
He's helped, no doubt, by the fact that this is a semi-autobiographical story from writer-director Jonathan Levine. The filmmaker has blessed his coming-of-age tale with a catchy hip-hop soundtrack, characters who feel grounded no matter how odd their circumstances and a girl worthy of Luke's dreams: Olivia Thirlby as the forbidden stepdaughter.
Now, The Wackness may alarm parents who would prefer that their kids' favorite Nickelodeon stars not leap right into selling drugs and losing their virginity when they hit the big screen.
But the story's not really about youthful indiscretions. It's more a tale of a young man struggling toward maturity, even as an older man struggles to abandon it. With that story, and that offbeat friendship at its center, The Wackness will likely strike plenty of chords with plenty of audiences.