After the success of 2003 Oscar-nominated documentary “Spellbound,” writer/director Jeffrey Blitz tries his hand at a bit of fanciful semi-autobiographical material with “Rocket Science.” While trying to distance his own stuttering past from that of his ironically-named protagonist, nerdy-cute Hal Hefner, Blitz’s movie comes across as needy in the worst way.
No fault lies in the engaging performance from newcomer Reece Thompson, whose stammering delivery may be the only consistently believable thread in the film. Hal is a shaggy-dog high school freshman in Plainsboro, New Jersey who pulls a full suitcase around behind him. His brother Earl (Vincent Piazza) goes from blustering idiot to tender soul in a moment, and they live in catatonic confusion since their parents split up and Mom started dating the creepy next-door neighbor.
An annoying omniscient narrator (that tries too hard to sound exactly like Alec Baldwin’s “The Royal Tenenbaums” voice-over) simply states the obvious in every scene. When Hal is approached by self-assured debate queen Ginny (Anna Kendrick), it is a momentous occasion. We know this not just because an older, attractive girl has just offered to mentor him in an activity not usually reserved for stutterers, but also because the faux-whimsical narration tells us something faux-profound about how “it was a Thursday. It could have been any other day, but it was a Thursday.”
Some of the characters in “Rocket Science” are likable, but never believable, and there seems to be no consequences for their behavior. All character traits are exaggerated for maximum eccentricity, including the speed at which high school debaters cover their arguments for and against teaching abstinence in schools—not a chance topic, considering the amount of sex-mad adults in the movie. Heaping irony upon irony (like a certain 2005 Best Picture winner) gets old after awhile, but at least “Rocket Science” is not as preachy or pretentious as “Crash.” It cannot be, because it doesn’t have that much to say.
Blitz wants the film to be like 70s auteur Hal Ashby (whose first name was borrowed for his hero) by way of “Harold And Maude” and “Being There,” but the whole thing comes off like Wes Anderson-lite without that director’s colorful and painterly mise-en-scene. I will be the first to stress that it is not always a deal-killer to step outside the trappings of realism, but the bland visuals don’t match the precious absurdity and profound rapid-fire dialogue of the high school kids, so the film rings false and tries too hard.
There are tons of basic plot elements missing that no amount of wordless montages to Violent Femmes tunes can cover. Ginny picking a stutterer for her debate partner makes about as much sense as never requiring the boy to actually debate until tournament time, and it sets the story up for all sorts of underdog comeback moments. Cheers to Blitz for not allowing it to go that far, but its already too late. Ginny’s sudden turn later in the film suffers the same unexplained affliction, as does a last minute entry into the final debate.(Oh, you knew there was going to be one last debate, right?)
The entire premise of “Rocket Science”— that a stuttering kid would be recruited to debate—is unconvincing. Never mind some unclear last-minute denouement that second-guesses Ginny’s original intention. That Hal has yet to actually stand up and speak all the way up to his first tournament is skirted and avoided throughout the movie, and remains a giant example of why “Rocket Science” is so phony.
There is one continuing scenario that shows what the film could have been minus all of its quirky trappings. A stutterer will get hung up and not be able to produce the one word he needs to say to get his point across. Not being able to order something as simple as a slice of pizza in the school cafeteria may seem like a small thing to someone else, but to Hal it’s everything. If Blitz would have stuck with little moments like this that speak volumes, “Rocket Science” might have struck an emotional chord more often.