Photograph by Jim Bridges
Speaking up: Hal (Reece Thompson) takes up public speaking in 'Rocket Science.'
A master debater is stillborn in 'Rocket Science'
By Richard von Busack
IT IS time for another comedy of disappointment, but this time the viewer is also in for a 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 school-competition movie plot. During a championship high-school debate, a meltdown occurs. In midspeech, the best debater, Ben (Nicholas D'Agosto), is dumbfounded, unable to carry on. 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 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. His stutter makes him too incomprehensible to order a pizza.
Hal is the butt of all around him, particularly his cruel, thieving older brother (Vincent Piazza) and his 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 Rocket Science who has been completely untouched by disappointment. Ginny (Anna Kendrick) talks at a rapid clip, like a heroine in a screwball comedy. As she races from one class to another, it seems as Hal has as much chance of catching her as a tortoise would of catching Haley's Comet. Unaccountably, Ginny envisions Hal as a debate champ who just needs a little coaching, even if he can't get a sentence out.
In the course of an ordinary romantic comedy, Ginny would be the pebble under the tongue of Hal, this Demosthenes in training. Blitz (Spellbound) passes, insisting 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 with 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 is at his best making Rocket Science 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 makes that choice between baked mystery fish and dog food-like slurry symbolize the choices that lie ahead for Hal. 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. Blitz's well-intentioned but off-putting film wastes away in front of you like a moribund patient.
Rocket Science (R; 98 min.), directed and written by Jeffrey Blitz, photographed by Jo Willems and starring Reece Thompson and Anna Kendrick, opens Aug. 17 at Camera 12 in San Jose and CinéArts Santana Row.
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