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08.15.07

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Phaedra

Photograph by Jim Bridges
SPEAKING UP: Hal (Reece Thompson) takes up public speaking in 'Rocket Science.'

Tongue-Tied

A master debater is stillborn in Jeffrey Blitz's high school drama 'Rocket Science'

By Richard von Busack


It's time for another comedy of disappointment, but this time the viewer is also in for some letdown. After a promising start, director/writer Jeffrey Blitz's Rocket Science drifts into Todd Solondz's Jersey territory but then gets sidetracked by a mundane school-competition plot.

During a New Jersey high-school state championship debate, a meltdown occurs. The best debater is Ben (Nicholas D'Agosto), who can rattle on about farm subsidies as if he were an auctioneer selling the farms in question. But in midspeech, he is dumbfounded, unable to continue. Rocket Science's narrator connects this sudden silence with a tragedy 46 miles away: in a suburban house, a father walks out on his family.

Was it this walkout that also made Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson) so tongued-tied? It's hard to tell, but he's a schlep when we meet him, an undersized boy who carries his books in a rolling suitcase. Hal is so pale that when he's in the bathtub he blends into the white tiles behind him. And his stutter makes him too incomprehensible to order a pizza.

Everyone teases Hal, particularly his cruel, thieving older brother (Vincent Piazza). Another threat comes from his negligent mom's new boyfriend (Steve Park), a Korean-American judge with a barbaric warlord laugh. By some miracle, Hal crosses paths with the one girl in the film who has been completely untouched by disappointment. Ginny (Anna Kendrick) was Ben's debate partner when he dried up onstage. She talks at a rapid clip, like a heroine in a screwball comedy. She's as sleek as a seal but distressingly curvy.

As she races from one class to another, it seems as if Hal has as much chance of catching her as a tortoise would of catching Haley's Comet. But he does catch her, for a quick kiss in the janitor's closet at school. Unaccountably, Ginny envisions Hal as a debate champ who just needs a little coaching, even if he can't get a sentence out. The girl has picked federal abstinence programs as her subject, though she admits that debaters don't have to believe in their argument and that having a point of view slows them down.

In the course of an ordinary romantic comedy, Ginny would be the pebble under the tongue of Hal, this Demosthenes in training. We could hope for something like Adam's Rib: a situation in which arguing over abstinence programs would be complicated by the affection between Ginny and Hal.

The adults in the film are all getting it on anyway. On the other side of the paper-thin wall, Hal's mom and the judge roar away like porn stars. And the parents of a minor character are working their way through the Kama Sutra and playing piano and cello duos between sessions to get themselves back in the mood.

The idea of debating abstinence training in such a climate has comic potential. Blitz passes, insisting that Rocket Science isn't all comedy. Instead, Ginny gets rid of Hal. It's one of those out-of-nowhere adolescent breakups that can knock the wind out of a person for years.

Hal gets drunk and makes a memorable spectacle of himself, accompanied by that incomparable nerd-wail of despair, the bridge from "Kiss Off" by the Violent Femmes. Finally, he seeks the master he needs to get him in shape to beat Ginny on her own field.

Blitz (Spellbound) is at his best when turning Rocket Science into a celebration of dweeb specialness, using disconcerting images and sounds: a black woman dressed up as Abe Lincoln teaching a social-studies class or a solo accordion version of Burt Bacharach's theme song for The Blob.

There are real jokes in addition to the dry anti-jokes; a rather good lunch-lady scene highlights that backdrop for so much high school horror: the cafeteria. Blitz's colorless color renders that awful choice between baked mystery fish and dog food–like slurry a symbol for the choices that lie ahead for Hal.

In a movie, one's eye follows the dynamic characters or the ones with secret energy. The two fastest rockets in Rocket Science get dropped: Ben and Ginny are too quick for the film Blitz had in mind. Shying away from pure nihilism (a more respectable choice), Blitz then tries to cook up an epiphany: Being adolescent is pure hell, but then being an adult isn't that thrilling either.

Freeing oneself from adolescence isn't usually one burst of triumph but the gradual dawning of common sense. Rocket Science, unfortunately, is just a movie that tries on a few endings and gives up. Blitz's well-intentioned but off-putting story wastes away in front of you like a moribund patient.


Movie Times ROCKET SCIENCE (R; 98 min.), directed and written by Jeffrey Blitz, photographed by Jo Willems and starring Reece Thompson and Anna Kendrick, opens Friday at the Del Mar Theatre in Santa Cruz.


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