Dir: Jeffrey Blitz. US. 2007. 98mins.
After the success of his Oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound, writer-director Jeffrey Blitz takes a shaky first step into features with Rocket Science. A deadpan high-school comedy about a misfit trying fruitlessly to court the object of his affection, this indie-minded effort suggests a film-maker too enamored by his influences and struggling to establish a cogent vision of his own.
Opening in limited release Stateside on August 10, Rocket Science (which debuted at this year's Sundance Film Festival to an ecstatic reception) doesn't have marquee names to attract audiences. Instead, positive reviews and Blitz's track record will be the film's main draws.
Spellbound brought in almost $6m domestically, a considerable tally for a documentary not helmed by Michael Moore (whose Bowling For Columbine beat it out for the Academy Award). Distributor Picturehouse is betting that Rocket Science's offbeat tone will help distinguish it among discriminating art-house patrons during the mostly insipid summer-blockbuster season.
The film's international rollout will probably be an even trickier challenge than the domestic release. Spellbound managed to pull in around $1.7m in foreign territories, but the new movie's dialogue-heavy humour may not translate as well as the documentary's big-competition narrative structure did. With many higher-profile, Oscar-hungry movies dominating the fall schedule, it seems unlikely Rocket Science will get much attention at awards time, limiting its ancillary possibilities.
Introverted Hal (Thompson) suffers from a paralysing stutter, which makes his high-school existence horribly awkward and lonely. But his life becomes considerably brighter when assertive, pretty Ginny (Kendrick), the fiercely competitive queen of the school's debate club, recruits him to join the team.
She believes that the best debaters are those with something to prove, and she suspects that her tutelage can help break Hal of his speech impediment and tap his unrealised potential. Hal decides to take part in the team, mostly as an excuse to be near this bewitching creature.
Rocket Science won Blitz the dramatic directing award at Sundance, an acknowledgement of the movie's tightly controlled ironic tone and detached air. Unfortunately, the film shares these qualities with many recent school-age comedies such as Rushmore, Election and Thumbsuckers that all deal with unhappy, unpopular adolescents trapped in messy home lives and battling tumultuous hormones.
In particular, Blitz's feature debut owes a significant debt to director Wes Anderson's pokerfaced brand of humour. Like with Anderson's Rushmore, Rocket Science enjoys highlighting the peculiarities of its socially-maladjusted antihero for comedic effect.
But whereas Anderson's visual acumen and satiric wit felt innovative, Blitz's similar stabs come across as cliched. This is most noticeable in a running bit involving Hal dragging a cumbersome suitcase on wheels behind him wherever he goes. The forced gag adds nothing to the story other than allowing Blitz an opportunity to make Hal appear even more uncomfortable than he already is.
The performances are solid, although the lack of chemistry between the romantic leads proves to be a problem. While Ginny's puzzling confidence in the stuttering, homely Hal is meant to arouse the audience's suspicion, Anna Kendrick's portrayal of this unhealthily driven young woman overemphasises her tough-as-nails demeanor and neglects any hint of softness underneath.
Meanwhile, Reece Daniel Thompson nicely plays Hal as a sympathetic wallflower, but as the character works harder and harder to overcome his impediment (and, in the process, win Ginny), Thompson is unable to make his character's increasingly erratic behavior poignant.
Both actors' struggles can be traced back to the film's overdependence on a mannered, quirky atmosphere. As an attempt to honor his characters' oddness, the incidents in Blitz's screenplay are motivated purely by Hal and Ginny's unpredictable antics, no matter how foolish or illogical.
But while this risky strategy also provides a few surprising moments, the film's inability to see beyond its characters' quirks keeps them from being relatable.
Perhaps the most incisive criticism of Rocket Science can be made by comparing it to Blitz's first film. Like Rocket Science, Spellbound focused on unconventional young people trying to find themselves through intellectual competition, but in the documentary, Blitz allowed his oddballs to become real people, honing in on their humanity so that the viewer cared passionately about their unusual quest to be the nation's top speller.
But with Rocket Science, rather than understanding his characters, Blitz now just wants to see how self-consciously weird he can make them. His new film is significantly more clever than his first, but it doesn't feel nearly as special.
Effie T Brown
Reece Daniel Thompson