No, a pair of folks whose marital therapy consists of playing instrumental (piano and cello) Violent Femmes covers doesn’t guarantee a good movie, but it’s a start. Films like Stranger than Fiction aped the Kaufman/Jonze/Gondry oeuvre, and, at first glance, Rocket Science appears to be doing the same with Wes Anderson’s body of work, but it isn’t. The humor may be absurd, and more existentially funny than ha-ha, but every frame isn’t a symmetrical wide angle, the structure is looser, and the performances more naturalistic.
Actually, Rocket Science sounds more like Anderson than it appears like Anderson. Narrator Dan Cashman’s voice recalls Alec Baldwin’s (who narrated The Royal Tenenbaums) at first listen, and it doesn’t help matters that one of the first — if not the first — character Cashman lands on is Ben Wekselbaum, a high-school policy debater, who is, at that moment, speaking about a thousand words per minute.
I liked the narration element in this movie, in part because it’s misdirecting. Cashman’s words set us up for a kind of mystical transferal of speech power from the handsome, confident Ben, to the geeky, stuttering Hal Hefner, who on the evening of the debate is at home scratching his golden retriever’s ears as his parents fight. His father leaves that night.
At school, Hal is terrorized by his older brother, a neanderthal Billie Joe Armstrong look-alike, and underwhelmed by the talents of the school’s catch-all therapist (If only Hal were hyperactive, and not a stutterer, the therapist laments. He can work miracles with hyperactive kids.) Hal is even invited to join a no-Hegel philosophy club by Jonah Hill. But down-and-out Hal is thrown a curveball when a pretty (if bratty) classmate, Ginny, “ferrets” him for the debate team.
Because Hal develops a crush on Ginny, and because Ginny encourages Hal by kissing him in the janitors’ closet, he throws his entire being into preparing for the big, inter-school debate championship. But still, he hasn’t magically inherited the gift of gab we were promised.
If the film’s narrator can be a master of misdirection, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that one of Rocket Science’s characters is a downright liar. Hal’s realization of this lie is his bite from the apple, and the crux of the film.
Unlike so many movies and television shows about alleged “geeks,” Reece Thompson actually looks like one — a lanky bastard Schwartzman brother with smaller eyebrows and an asymmetrical bone structure. But more importantly, Thompson pulls off a seriously credible stutter. Those with a limited tolerance for awkwardness (Hi, honey!) will be pleased to know Hal isn’t ever left hanging in a stutter for too lengthy a period, thanks to attuned editing by Yana Gorskaya.
Rocket Science opens on two teenagers making out (in a debate-hall mezzanine) with the kind of fervor confined to high school, the unknowing zeal stimulated by a first kiss with someone new. Spellbound director Jeffrey Blitz regularly reminds us that Rocket Science, his second film (and first narrative feature), is set in this world of youthful, unrestrained, often bewildering emotion, so we are not disappointed when the pursuit of perfect speech is trumped by an inquisition on love.
This is a funny, touching movie I would recommend to anyone; the R-rating is completely superfluous. But don’t get me started on the MPAA, unless you want to debate about it. •
Dir. Jeffrey Blitz, writ. Blitz; feat. Reece Thompson, Anna Kendrick, Nicholas D’Agosto, Vincent Piazza (R)