Clichés keep Rocket grounded

There’s a strangely memorable scene midway through Rocket Science in which lead character Hal Hefner is asked by a neighbourhood mom if he’d "like to listen to two adults attempt to rekindle their marriage through musical therapy." She on violin and her portly husband on piano are playing (somewhat inexplicably) an instrumental version of the Violent Femmes’ "Add it Up."

It’s this type of unexpected attention to detail that sets Jeffrey Blitz’s (of Spellbound fame) film apart from the suburban underdog indie-dramedy set. Unfortunately it’s one of only a few inclusions that keep the film from becoming utterly interchangeable with Thumbsucker The Chumscrubber and their ilk.

Reece Thompson previously unseen in both the Sandlot and Baby Geniuses sequels stars as Hal. He is believable and likable as the sad-eyed stuttering student rolling around with his dad’s suitcase and too-big clothes and inspires sympathy within the film’s first few frames. Hal’s speech impediment provides the backbone of the film’s less-than-original main storyline as he decides to join the debate team first for love then to prove a point.

Broadway actress Anna Kendrick is also successful as the obsessively driven love interest and foil Ginny Ryerson. As is Nicholas D’Agosto as Ben Wekselbaum the former debate star who threw it all away after discovering the vapidity of the whole oratorical ordeal. Ben acts as an inspiration for Hal indirectly in the film’s early scenes and then comes to the forefront again in the somewhat clever final third.

Sadly most other characters come off as little more than one-note jokes. Some of these are funny ( Superbad ‘s Jonah Hill as the smarmy junior philosopher Steve Park of Fargo fame as Mrs. Hefner’s too keen Korean boyfriend) but most others are immediately forgettable (Denis O’Hare as Hal’s depressed dad Margo Martindale as the cynical Coach Lumbly etc).

Still it’s not the characters no matter how cliché they may be nor the performances that keep Rocket Science from soaring. It’s the story and even more so how it’s told. Right down to Dan Cashman’s Alec Baldwin-aping narration and the over-stylized shots of mundane situations Blitz far too clearly wants to be Wes Anderson.

Of course a paint-by-numbers project can never come across as genuine as an original. With the same kind of deadpan non-jokes and slow-paced scenes of absurd realism popularized by Napoleon Dynamite and Little Miss Sunshine this uninspired hipster flick is simply trying too hard to look like it’s not.