August 12, 2007

MOVIES: Rocket Science (Jeffrey Blitz, 2007)

Oh, my friends, we are going to be paying for the success of Napoleon Dynamite for years to come, as the arthouses are flooded with a never-ending series of quirky little movies about quirky little teenagers living bleak (but quirky!) lives in some suburban wasteland or other.

This example of the genre is set in New Jersey, not too far from Trenton, and our hero is Hal Hefner (Reece Daniel Thompson), who suffers from a stutter so intense that he can't tell the lunch lady whether he wants fish or pizza. Despite this handicap, Hal is approached by Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick), the star of the school's debate team; Ginny believes that underneath that stutter, Hal has the makings of a champion debater. "Deformed people are the best," she tells him. "Maybe it's their deep reserves of anger." Hal, captivated by the lovely Ginny, agrees to give it a shot.

The notion of Hal as a debater is so ludicrous that it rips the movie out of the real world and into an absurd fantasy land. To be sure, the movie's grasp on reality was already thin, as every character is so aggressively eccentric that they no longer feel human. There's the therapist who hasn't a clue how to deal with Hal's stuttering ("Too bad you don't have ADD," he chirps, "I could really do something with that."); Hal's pal Lewis (Josh Kay), whose parents play piano-cello duet versions of Violent Femmes songs as a form of marital therapy; the creepy Judge Pete (Steve Park), who's dating Hal's mother and is given to loud bursts of laughter for no particular reason. (Park has a gift for this sort of bizarrely inappropriate social behavior; you may remember him as Mike Yanagita in Fargo). Even the movie's soundtrack screams quirky -- an arrangement of "The Blob" for mandolin, accordion, and whistler; "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" tentatively plucked out on a banjo.

A few of the actors escape this mess with some dignity intact. Vincent Piazza steals every scene he's in as Hal's bullying brother, Earl; Nicholas D'Agosto has the right mix of arrogance and desperation as the mysterious debate legend, Ben Wekselbaum. And as Ginny, Anna Kendrick is a delight, sailing through oceans of rapid-fire dialogue with great aplomb; the movie's energy level plummets whenever she's not on screen.

But Reece Daniel Thompson is a cipher on the screen; flat inflections, a blank face, and the inability to communicate any emotion combine to make Hal an empty character. There's nothing to Hal but his eccentricities, so it's hard to care what happens to him. Much the same can be said of Rocket Science as a whole; it's a twee festival of oddness, but that's all it is.

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