Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Rocket Science

"Rocket Science" (Jeffrey Blitz, 2007) Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson) has been "ferreted." A geeky neurotic stutterer from a dysfunctional family, he has been ferreted by smart, sassy A-personality Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick) to be her partner in the school debating society. It is her strategy to win the state championships which she narrowly lost the year before when her partner Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D'Agosto), an equally smart A-personality suddenly went into a fugue state in the middle of their competition. Now, she has a plan to take it all, and Hal is the crux of it.

Director Blitz knows all about competition—he was the documentarian of "
Spellbound" (which has also seen him shooting cinéma vérité television shows like "The Office" and "Parks and Recreation"). But in "Rocket Science," as in Payne and Taylor's "Election," the real world invades the middle-school competition. In "Spellbound" the real kids competed equally on their very uneven playing fields. The disadvantaged kids were equally charged to succeed as their more well-off competitors, but their environments might have influenced their destinies. But in "Rocket Science" the competition is played like a reality show: it's not just about the competition itself, it's influencing the conditions under which the competition is played. Pretty soon, it's not a matter of prep work, research and "spreading"—a technique for speaking your arguments as fast as possible to a) get as many position statements into the allotted time and b) confounding the other side—it's also a matter of gamesmanship and manipulating your opponents to your advantage.

And in High School, that can mean a lot of things.

Soon, Hal is in full-combat mode, against himself and his opponents. He's been primed for this test by his psychopathic older brother (
Vincent Piazza, very funny), but also by a higher lesson in tactics practiced by the now-fabled Ben Wekselbaum.

It's a great theme, played by some terrific age-appropriate actors with Piazza, D'Agosta and Kendrick achieving amazing things. It's only in the directing that the movie wobbles. Blitz, wily enough to create this high-school version of "House of Games" just isn't specific or precise enough to nail home his life-lessons. One is left a bit unsatisfied, as if in all the meticulous prep work, the exercise falls down by what's left unsaid.

Update: I just managed to catch Blitz's directed segment of "The Office" last week—it's the one where Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson) loses his designation as safety director after staging a surprise mock fire-drill complete with wastebasket fire and exploding firecrackers in the lunch-room. Very funny, and quite well-choreographed.

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