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For a tongue-tied teen, life is 'Rocket Science'

What might we learn? A lot more than Jeffrey Blitz manages to convey in this admirable but unexpressive film.

August 10, 2007|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

Fluent, technically accomplished, inarguably clever but oddly passionless, Jeffrey Blitz's debut feature, "Rocket Science," is not unlike one of the propositions argued by the members of the movie's Plainsboro High School debate team. Just because you get talked into something doesn't mean you believe it.

An off-kilter coming-of-age comedy in the same vein (make that artery) as "Rushmore," "Napoleon Dynamite," "The Squid and the Whale," "Harold and Maude" and, in many ways, Blitz's own hit documentary "Spellbound," "Rocket Science" plumbs the secret lives of teen geeks -- an excellent place to look -- for clues to the mysteries of the human condition. Ostensibly about a boy's first encounter with the classic violent emotions (epic longing, lyrical humiliation, prosaic torture), "Rocket Science" somehow fails to elicit them. As beautifully made and wonderfully acted as it is, it's ultimately more impressive than affecting.

Still, it is quite impressive. From the moment the camera swoops down from the high school auditorium bleachers where a teenage couple impersonates a pair of octopuses locked in mortal combat and fixes on the glowing person of Plainsboro golden boy Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D'Agosto), it's clear that none of the ambitions on display are modest ones. Ben is tall, handsome, confident and can talk like an auctioneer on overdrive. His debate partner Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick) couldn't admire or count on him more.

Halfway through his peroration at the New Jersey state championships, however, Ben is suddenly struck dumb by a mysterious metaphysical event, as a gravelly voice-of-God narrator (Dan Cashman) explains. Ben's voice (as in, his fluency, confidence and sense of self) is putatively transferred to one Hal Hefner (Reece Daniel Thompson), a kid with a bad stutter and a worse home life, who at that very moment is sitting in dumbfounded silence as his father moves out of the house. A few days later, he makes the improbable decision to join the debate team after new team captain Ginny convinces him that "deformed people" make the best debaters, "probably because they have deep resources of anger."

Naturally, this harebrained decision unleashes a chain reaction of exquisite torments, but Hal's pain is hard to share. It's not what he does that is unconvincing, it's what he feels that doesn't quite register. The emotional center of the movie, he is almost entirely incapable of expressing himself. (Ben's voice is nowhere in evidence.) His stutter is so bad that ordering lunch in the cafeteria is a daily ordeal. The omniscient narrator device, a conceit used recently and to much better effect in Todd Field's "Little Children," is supposedly there to address this problem. But where the narrator's oratory style might have cut through the characters' flamboyant debate team rhetoric and gotten to the core of Hal's feelings, it just adds another layer of baroque stylization instead.

The empathy problem is further exacerbated by almost all the characters in the film coming across as caricatures. Hal's brother Earl (Vincent Piazza) is an obsessive-compulsive kleptomaniac life-planner who calls Hal by a variety of girls' names. His father (Denis O'Hare) is weaselly, his mother (Lisbeth Bartlett) is pathetic and shrill, and his mother's new boyfriend, a Korean American judge (Stephen Park) who happens to be the father of Hal's gay friend Heston (Aaron Yoo), is about a hair away from "Sixteen Candles' " Long Duk Dong. Meanwhile, Ginny's mother appears to serve no function apart from opening the door looking existentially bereft. Across the street, Hal's friend's parents play a piano and cello version of a Violent Femmes song and entreat Hal to listen to "an old couple work on their marriage through music therapy."

All of this would have been fine, part of a venerable tradition harking back to John Hughes and beyond, if the kids were granted the complexity and depth that the adults lack. But even the hero and the love interest, to say nothing of the brother and friend, have a quirky, hermetic quality that makes it impossible to get to know them. Emotionally, the movie hinges on what is presented as a terrible betrayal, but the betrayal lacks the punch it would have had if the characters had ever made themselves vulnerable to one another in the first place.

On the other hand, the cinematography by Jo Willems ("Hard Candy") and production design by Rick Butler are rich and textured and create an entire universe out of New Jersey that's cozy and inviting and anomic and bleak at the same time. The music by Eef Barzelay is gorgeous, and Thompson, D'Agosto and Kendrick are soulful and appealing. Blitz's script crackles with dialogue that's sharp, brainy and exhilaratingly articulate. (The R rating is excessively prudish, incidentally, as happens with so many films that fail to take sex deathly seriously.) In other words, the merits of "Rocket Science" are endlessly debatable, and this is nothing to sneeze at.

MPAA rating: R for some language and sexual material. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes. In wide release.

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