Wednesday, August 08, 2007

"Rocket Science" -- * * * *

“There’s a cello in your house now…”

For Hal Hefner (Reece Daniel Thompson), life is continually a struggle, and simply asking for pizza in the lunch line is an insurmountable obstacle. Saddled with a crippling stutter, Hal has to repeatedly practice ordering the pizza that he wants, only to settle for a sloppy joe when the pivotal moment comes because he can’t spit out ‘slice of pizza’ fast enough. “Rocket Science” is about such familiar and painfully funny disappointments that come packaged with adolescence.

Writer-director Jeffrey Blitz makes a startling transition from documentary (the wonderful “Spellbound”) to fiction with this poignantly personal comedy with its own unique sensibility that manages to avoid cliché at every turn. Though the easiest marketing hook for it has been its “Napoleon Dynamite” and Wes Anderson-esque quirk, “Science” is significantly more grounded in reality than the latter, and unlike the former, it clearly has affection for its characters, not disdain. Personally, the movie’s tone reminded me more of “Election” and “Igby Goes Down” than any of Anderson’s films.

The movie’s opening sequence gives us a look at “spreading,” the art of rapid-fire debating where words whiz by so fast you can barely make them out. Our narrator (who actually serves an eventual dramatic purpose, not just adds novelistic pretense) tells us the whos and whats of the scene before bringing us into the Hefner household, with Hal not uttering a word. His parents (Lisbeth Bartlett and Denis O’Hare, both exceptional in small roles) are splitting up, and Hal finds it increasingly difficult to express how he feels.

Almost immediately after, the hottest smart girl in school, Ginny (an excellent Anna Kendrick) recruits Hal to join their school’s fiercely competitive debate team. When Hal questions his viability as a candidate for such a position, Ginny tersely states that “Deformed people are the best,” citing their repressed anger. With Ginny as his debate partner (their topic is abstinence) and the two of them engaging in makeout sessions in the janitor’s closet, things appear to be looking up for Hal, but neither lasts very long. I won’t spoil what happens from there, but it’s at the one-third mark where the movie (and Hal) really begins to hit its stride. The movie isn’t so much about Hal’s rise as a master debater, but how joining the team becomes a catalyst for him and his ascension into dealing with life.

I’ve seen “Rocket Science” twice now—the first time at the Philidelphia Film Festival and the second time at the Maryland Film Festival—so I can state definitively that its charms, quirks and simultaneous cynicism and big-heartedness hold up, and may even improve, on repeat viewings. It’s easy to dismiss it (as some have) as yet another quirky coming-of-age movie, but it’s a testament to the direction, acting and especially the writing that “Rocket Science” is worlds better than any offerings in the genre in the last few years.

For starters, it feels more honest. What’s most refreshing about this high school comedy is that it’s made by someone who clearly remembers what high school was actually like. Blitz perfectly captures the melancholy, anger, and insanity of adolescence, while keeping the proceedings very funny throughout. Rather than offering up “isn’t that quirky!” situations and characters simply for their own sake (tater tots being stored in pants pockets comes to mind), even “Rocket’s” strangest characters seem at least vaguely familiar and recognizable, never relying on movie-established clichés of jocks and cheerleaders and nerds. These aren’t typical teen movie characters; they’re incredibly smart, but not terribly good at expressing themselves or how they’re feeling.

Don’t get me wrong: not every element of “Rocket Science” is likely to correspond with real life. There’s certainly some movielike, off-kilter (and hilarious) quirks going on here—I think the married couple playing Violent Femmes as “music therapy” is the movie’s preciousness apex—but the themes are very much real.

But I certainly don’t want to neglect how fucking funny this movie is. Hal’s drunken retaliation against Ginny is easily one of my favorite moments from a movie this year, and his persistence in ways to mask his stutter while public speaking (including speaking in an accent, whispering and singing his speech) are mortifying and hysterical at the same time, particularly for those of us who have our own fear of public speaking. The movie also boasts what may be the most triumphant depiction of simply giving someone the finger I’ve seen in years.

As would be expected for a film about a character who isn’t always able to speak easily, Blitz surrounds Hal with quirky characters (including a cameo from Jonah Hill), ranging from a Kama Sutra-obsessed 11-year-old to a smart-mouthed lunchlady (“Sloppy joes are all that’s left, but they’re not that terrible if you’ve never had really good ones before”). If the screenplay can be faulted for anything, it’s that none of these supporting characters are really developed beyond what we see them do onscreen; but that’s forgivable, this is Hal’s story through and through.

I don’t know if this is a fluke performance that he’ll never match, or a sign of great things to come, but Reece Daniel Thompson is tremendous here as Hal. It’s a performance that works on so many levels I hardly know where to begin. On a purely technical plane, he infuses Hal with a particularly unique type of stutter that never sounds false and is incredibly difficult to pull off, let alone for a young actor (Thompson was 16 or 17—sorry, I misplaced my press notes—when “Science” was shot). Beyond that, he makes Hal one of the more likable and believable protagonists in ages, making him sympathetic without ever being pathetic. For a character with a speech impediment, there’s so much going on in Hal’s eyes, particularly at moments of embarrassment or mockery, showing us that he’s just used to it by this point but it still makes a stinging impression. At the very least, Thompson is assured some sort of Independent Spirit Award nomination.

Blitz showed with “Spellbound” how skilled he was as a director, but with “Rocket Science” he may have written the best original screenplay of 2007 so far (or at least the best live-action one). Not only infusing his main character with so much depth and honesty, Blitz jams a never-ending stream of very funny lines into “Rocket Science,” many of which will resonate with some more than others; Hal asking a girl in a private school’s principal’s office “Does it count as second base if it’s groping through the shirt?” and her responding “Maybe in public school,” got huge knowing laughter from a certain pocket of my audience. I never completely knew what direction “Rocket Science” was heading in, but every story beat seemed just right, leading up to its completely perfect ending.

The best thing that can be said for “Rocket Science” is that it manages to be an uplifiting crowd-pleaser of sorts while avoiding pretty much every predictable outcome. There’s no doubt that a major studio’s version would’ve included Hal overcoming his stutter, winning the debate competition and earning back Ginny’s affections, but “Rocket Science’s” aspirations are higher. Blitz has no interest in a neat and tidy Hollywood resolution mandated by committee, he cares about what’s best and realistic and attainable for Hal. This isn’t a movie about garnering the girl and the trophy, but about sorting out and accepting the complexities of living.

I must discuss the ludicrous R-rating that the MPAA has handed to “Rocket Science” for “some language and sexual material.” I was shocked when I saw the ‘R’ tag at the end of the credits, because I could’ve sworn it was a PG-13 film. It seemed like it would be most readily embraced by discriminating younger audiences and featured little-to-no offensive content. When I ran into Blitz at the MD Film Festival, he seemed frustrated by the rating as well. I asked if it was for the movie’s lone use of ‘fuck’ and he said it was more attributed to teenagers using the word ‘blowjob’ and the “sexually explicit” shots of illustrations from the Kama Sutra.

He resigned that it will probably go down as the mildest R-rating in the history of movies, and despite numerous re-submissions, the MPAA wouldn’t budge. But Blitz remained hopeful that word-of-mouth would carry the film and the rating would turn out to not be much of an obstacle. I hope he’s right, since the movie certainly deserves to find a sizable audience. Whether it does will be seen soon enough (it opens in NYC and LA this weekend and will expand around the country throughout August and September), but I can virtually assure whatever audiences it does garner will be glad they took a brief venture away from the non-stop barrage of summer sequels and blockbusters.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


My interview with Blitz is up:

Thanks for recommending the movie to me, man.


9:11 AM  

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