Oh, how it is tempting to make a dreadful pun like "The Wackness is totally wack", but just because a filmmaker invites mean jokes with a poorly thought-out title, doesn't mean the reviewer is obligated to take advantage. Still, it is totally wack. At least, it's marred by an inconsistent tone and a plot that could be dismissed as easily as it is to say: "Basically the same as every indie movie ever - but in 1994!"

So yes, it's the summer of 1994, and Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck, a teenybopper who I guess specialises in bullies -he played them in Mean Creek and Drillbit Taylor) is a drug-dealing pothead freshly graduated from high school. His best client and closest analogue to a friend is his psychiatrist, Dr. Jeffrey Squires (Ben Kingsley); his life is an endless cycle of dealing, listening to rap, bitching about Giuliani, and wishing to have sex. The chief object of his frustrated lust is Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby, continuing her drift towards ubiquity), who happens to be Dr. Squires's step-daughter. Though I have withheld the subplots, I don't doubt for a moment that you can figure out where things go from here.

Not that familiarity is a sin, mind you, but when a film proudly endeavors to position itself as the latest in the miles-long line of unserious dramas about young men discovering the world and sex while staving off the crappy dullness of life, it had better do something interesting enough to justify its own existence. The Wackness gives us an appallingly vague protagonist played with heavy-lidded ennui by an actor not remotely charismatic enough to make us give a damn. The point of the story may be that Luke hasn't figured out who he is yet, but that's not a licence to crank out a flat protagonist, whose chief characteristic is that he speaks in that white-boy-rap-fiend patois that got co-opted by the internet and made ironic early in the '00s. And that he complains a lot. He is bored of life; we are bored of him; and thus is the circle unbroken.

I'd say that The Wackness also gives us a uniquely specific view of a particular moment in time, and it's a certainty that the film's vision of 1994 is a lovingly observed one, full of more period-specific signifiers than you could shake a mixtape at. Writer-director Jonathan Levine grew up in the time and place he depicts, resulting in a recreation of the mid-'90s that's convincing and complete, unlike e.g. the slapdash cod-'90s seen in Definitely, Maybe. On the other hand, this is as clear an example as you could imagine of the artist getting too close to his own work; for most of the first thirty minutes or so, The Wackness is so entranced by its own mise en scène, that it's positively suffocating. Large stretches of the movie aren't even a movie; they're Levine's filmed scrapbook. What cinematic defense could possibly be put forth for the lingering close-up on the TV screen as Luke plays The Legend of Zelda?* And then, all of a sudden, all of the 1994-osity goes away except for the soundtrack, leaving a plot we've all seen before, with nothing to tie it back to its era. There's too much '90s, there's hardly any '90s; the one thing that never is, is just the right amount.

Coming in to save the day, unexpectedly is Kinglsey. The good knight has spent most of the current decade trying to make us all forget why we ever thought he was a good actor, and at least as far as his script-picking goes, that doesn't appear to have changed. But at least his performance is a step above where it was in check-cashing experiments like BloodRayne and Thunderbirds. Or Christ, The Love Guru. I don't know if it's a classically "good" performance - he's awfully hammy and broad - but at least he's energetic and funny more often than not, and he gives the film something it desperately needs: oxygen.

(The disparity between the peppy Kingsley and the mordant Peck actually mirrors the desperate liveliness of Dr. Squires and the drugged-out misery of Luke. I wonder if Levine planned it this way, and I like to imagine the set: "Josh, be more dour. MORE DOUR, dammit! I don't want to see your facial muscles move! And Sir Ben, act more drunk! Waggle your head around so your silly wig bounces about!" That's how I'd have directed them, anyway.)

The acting is pretty much decent, in fact, throughout the cast: Thirlby is always engaging, when the script fits her (she played the super-annoying best friend in Juno, but also the tremendously appealing teen love interest in Snow Angels), and Famke Janssen, as the doc's unhappy wife, actually gets to share some scenes with Kingsley where they both do some proper acting, my favorite being the tiny facial expressions they go through when they decide to divorce. You've probably heard that Mary-Kate Olsen is in the film, but drive that thought from your head: she is in two scenes for less than eight minutes. Even so, she isn't half bad.

Other than those actors, and a significant number of well-composed outdoor shots, The Wackness is all stifling and bland and totally unimaginative: the mirthless teen anti-hero, the sin-ugly urban cinematography by Petra Korner, the glacial pace. I shall end by saying the meanest, most damning thing I can think of: it won an award at Sundance.