Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Rocket Science: Good but Frustratingly Quirky


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

As a high-school student, Jeffrey Blitz suffered from a bad stutter that made it almost impossible for him to express himself verbally. He decided that, much like the proverbial kid who teaches himself to swim by hurling himself into the coldest, swiftest-flowing water he can find and either swimming or drowning, he’d solve his stuttering problem by joining his high-school debating team. Blitz not only overcame his stutter but went on to great success as a debater and helped his high school win the New Jersey state debating championship. Years later, flush with the success of his documentary film Spellbound — which made spelling bees seem oddly hip and got the national championship a berth on ESPN cable TV — Blitz revisited this personal history for his first fiction film, Rocket Science (as in, “It’s not exactly … ”), but put a quirky spin on it that’s at once his film’s greatest strength and severest weakness.

“I’m generally allergic to autobiographical feature films,” Blitz acknowledged in an interview included in the press kit for Rocket Science. “Except for some of the ridiculousness and some of the pain of stuttering, my own life isn’t really represented.” His protagonist, Hal Hefner (Reece Daniel Thompson) — and yes, it’s typical of Blitz’s ironic sense of humor that he’s given a sexually frustrated teen a last name that connotes loose, swinging “playboy” sexuality — is the younger brother in a proletarian home in the New Jersey suburb of Plainfield. He’s saddled with a tormenting older brother, Earl (Vincent Piazza, who’d be a good choice if they do a biopic of the young Elvis); a father (Denis O’Hare) who suddenly walks out on his mom (Lisbeth Bartlett) almost as soon as the movie opens; a new man in Mom’s life, Korean-American small-claims judge Pete (Stephen Park), who thinks nothing of feeling up his new girlfriend’s thighs while both her kids and his are watching; and Pete’s son Heaton (Aaron Yoo).

Hal is also — stop me if you’ve heard this before — hopelessly in love with rich girl Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick), even though the only place they meet is on the bus to and from school. When Ginny makes it clear to him that the way to her heart is through the debate team, Hal signs up with predictably disastrous results. Eventually it develops that Ginny is still seething over her loss of the state debate championship the year before when her partner, Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D’Agosto), froze completely during the final round, and Hal is just a pawn in her elaborate plot for revenge.

Having stuck himself with a plot that taps on quite a few old-movie clichés, Blitz spends virtually all of Rocket Science’s 98-minute running time confounding audience expectations at almost every turn. We keep expecting him to pitch his character the big, fat over-the-plate ball that will enable Hal to hit the home run that will win him the big game — and instead Blitz feeds him a flurry of change-ups, sliders, curveballs and everything else he can think of to derail his — and our — expectations. Determined, as he said in his press-kit interview, to “wrest the story from autobiography to create something generally unconnected to my own experience except in its most basic emotional content,” he denies Hal the smooth, Capra-esque debating triumph he experienced himself and creates an oddly detached film.

Part of the detachment comes, ironically enough, from two modern-day bad movie devices Blitz indulges in all too readily: the pseudo-philosophical narration delivered by Dan Cashman and the use of mediocre rock songs (some of them by the Violent Femmes, a band that sounds basically like Lou Reed fronting the Clash) to guy the emotional content and tell us how we’re supposed to feel about the scenes instead of letting us experience them for ourselves. Rocket Science lurches along from scene to scene, with Hal often hurting innocent people in his quest for revenge against Ginny, to a curiously unsatisfying and irresolute ending.

It’s a real pity Rocket Science isn’t stronger as a whole because many of its parts are extremely engaging. Blitz manages the deft balancing act of making his film very funny but ensuring that none of the laughs are at Hal’s expense. The character of a school psychologist who keeps coming up with loonier and loonier suggestions for Hal’s stutter, from speaking in a foreign accent to singing his debate presentation — and at one point laments to him, “I wish you had attention deficit disorder. That I’m really great at dealing with!” — is marvelously satirical. Ginny’s neighbors — a couple who hold their marriage together by playing piano-and-cello duets, and their sexually precocious 12-year-old son — whom Hal befriends as a way of spying on her, are also hilarious.

Rocket Science is also the nastiest movie made about school since Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse — which was about junior high, not high school, but shared some of the same elements, notably the relentless pecking order in the school cafeteria. Ginny’s character starts out as the engaging little rich girl whom Blitz seems to be setting up for a dose of wisdom and understanding at the hands of the proletarian protagonist, but as the film progresses she becomes more and more evil until at the end she seems to be warming up for an adult life as a femme fatale in film noir. At the same time, some possibly engaging plot twists — including the hint dropped early on that Heaton might be a Gay teen with a crush on Hal (he shows him a calendar with a still from Brokeback Mountain) — just disappear with no explanation whatever.

One good thing about Rocket Science is that it’s cast to perfection. Reece Daniel Thompson is just right as Hal, cute without being too good-looking and utterly convincing in his unequal struggle with the English language: you really believe he can’t get out the words he’s thinking. Anna Kendrick nails Ginny’s moral transformation, becoming harder and more severe as the film progresses. Margo Martindale is good as the long-suffering debate coach, and though we see very little of him Denis O’Hare brings real pathos to his short scenes as Hal’s dad. Oddly, the most charismatic actor by far is Nicholas D’Agosto as the super-debater who loses his skills in what can only be called a crisis of faith; Blitz holds him and his character in reserve but gives us a galvanic sensation when he re-enters the action towards the end.

Rocket Science is also well made from the technical end. For a film set in a proletarian-industrial milieu, the temptations to make everything dirty brown and green must have been overwhelming, and Blitz and his director of photography, Jo Willems, deserve credit for resisting them. There’s a chilling shot of the neon sign on the bridge leading to Trenton, New Jersey (ironically, the closest thing to a metropolis these suburban Jersey kids know) that reads, “Trenton Makes — The World Takes.” Overall, it’s an entertaining movie that will make you laugh and move you emotionally — but with just a bit more thought and care on the part of its writer-director, and a bit less fear of making his film more unmistakably autobiographical, it could have been a good deal better.