There's a sweetness in "Rocket Science" that's completely undermined by the movie's phoniness. This is a film that's too obvious in its quirkiness, and that's a shame, because on its own, without all the forced kookiness that shoves its way into every scene, the story has some very intelligent things to say about teenage awkwardness.
The movie is written and directed by Jeffrey Blitz, who previously directed the magnificent documentary "Spellbound." Who better to give us a peek at the frustrations of adolescence than the filmmaker who got deep in the trenches of junior high spelling bee warfare? And yet Blitz's turn to fiction just doesn't work - he's too hung up on oddball peculiarities that his characters never have the chance to ring true.
Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson) is a shy, nervous outcast at his high school. His stuttering leaves him unable to communicate, even beyond the normal stumblings of a quiet geek. So it's a bit of a surprise when Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick) recruits him to join the school's debate team. Ginny, a self-absorbed, highly intelligent chatterbox, obviously has something up her sleeve with this scheme, but Hal sees none of it - he's blinded by love for this popular upperclassman and the confidence he slowly gains. Never mind that Hal's a terrible debater. He becomes so obsessed with the idea of winning (both debate trophies and Ginny's heart) that he builds himself up to be a winner in his own mind.
We spend the whole movie wanting to pull Hal off the screen and warn him, not only about Ginny's wicked plans (whatever they may be), but also about himself. Hal is a kid who makes a whole heap of mistakes, and Thompson delivers such a wonderfully twitchy performance that Hal becomes a genuine kid, real in all his flaws. It's a great performance creating a great character, and what he does here will make you think back to all the stupid things you did at that age, and boy, you will ever cringe, unable to stop Hal from his own idiocies of youth.
Yet around Hal, bursting with authenticity, is a supporting cast that's overflowing with unnecessary hokey colorfulness. Instead of merely having a meathead older brother whom he'll never understand, Hal is given Earl (Vincent Piazza), an obsessive-compulsive kleptomaniac who still calls his parents "mommy" and "daddy." Instead of merely having a speech therapist who's mildly ineffectual, Hal is given Mr. Lewinsky (Maury Ginsberg), an inexperienced dolt easily distracted by his own tales of former girlfriends. Instead of general problems at home, Hal is given Judge Pete (Steve Park), a bizarre bachelor who dates Hal's recently divorced mom (Lisbeth Bartlett), wackiness ensuing.
And what are we supposed to make of the strange family living across the street from Ginny? Hal becomes friends with the creepy kid whose bedroom offers a clear view of Ginny's room; most oddball moments, like the kid's prepubescent fascination with women's undergarments, don't quite hit the level of truthfulness at which Blitz is aiming. Meanwhile, the kid's flighty parents spend all day and night playing Violent Femmes songs, reworked as duets for cello and piano. What gives here? This is weirdness for weirdness' sake, and it brings the story to a screeching halt.
(The soundtrack is loaded with off-center cover tunes like this; one scene features the theme from "The Blob" played on the accordion. Blitz then pushes things too far by then replaying the real, original Femmes songs on the soundtrack, as if unsure if we'd get the joke. Why show so little faith in the premise?)
There's a whole lot more aggressive quirkiness where that came from, and it pulls the rug out from what could have been a lovely little teen dramedy. After all, the cast is uniformly excellent, Blitz shows a knack for combining intricate character work with intriguing visuals, and his screenplay is loaded with wonderful chunks of delicious wordplay, including a sharp narration (dryly delivered by Dan Cashman) that lends the picture the upscale tone of a fine novel.
With all this in play, Blitz then sends it all crashing down around him, tossing us attention-grabbing nuttiness that never once feels earned, or needed, or true. "Rocket Science" is a story smothered by its own eccentricities. If only Blitz would have let it up for air.
Video & Audio
There's a small amount of grain in the anamorphic widescreen (1.77:1) transfer, which otherwise looks just fine. The soundtrack sparkles in its Dolby 5.1 presentation, which makes the most out of the music-heavy track. A Spanish stereo dub is also included, as are optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
"The Making of Rocket Science" (12:37) only skims the behind-the-scenes surface, acting more as a promotional piece. (I'm not sure, but I'd guess this aired as part of HBO's "First Look" series.) Without diving into full-on EPK territory, the featurette gives minor rundowns of the cast, their characters, with Blitz pulling in most of the screen time. Presented in 1.33:1 full frame, with movie clips properly letterboxed.
A video (2:53) for "I Love the Unknown," the catchy theme song performed by Clem Snide, consists mostly of movie clips, mixed with the occasional shot of Snide singing on the various film sets. Presented in 1.77:1 anamorphic widescreen.
Finally, a set of previews for other Time Warner releases plays as the disc loads.
"Rocket Science" could have been so much more than it is, if only Blitz would've let up on the self-aware nuttiness. Those more forgiving of such quirky projects should definitely Rent It to experience a fine cast at work.