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“Rocket Science”

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By Matt Singer

IFC News

[Photo: “Rocket Science,” Picturehouse Entertainment, 2007]

“Rocket Science,” like director Jeffrey Blitz’s first non-fiction debut “Spellbound,” creeps up on you, getting more and more effective as it goes along. In both films, Blitz has a knack for creating (or in the case of his documentary, finding and presenting) young characters we really care for, and then sending them, and us, into desperate, gripping situations. These are movies you feel, right down to your toes.

“Spellbound” followed several finalists in the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee; “Rocket Science” is about a bunch of high school debaters, but mostly Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson), who grapples with a stutter so crippling he can’t even order a school lunch without hours of preparation. Despite his speech impediment, Hal’s handpicked by master debater Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick) to be her new partner. Ginny is serious about everything, but particularly debate. “Debate is life,” she solemnly informs Hal. “You shouldn’t think of it in any other context.”

Ginny sees some potential in him, and she’s undeterred by his awkward demeanor and lack of social skills. (Hal pointedly eschews a school bookbag for a piece of luggage with wheels, so he’s literally dragging his baggage around wherever he goes.) She claims, somewhat illogically, that damaged people often make excellent policy debaters. In truth, she might just be caught up in the fact that Hal bears a passing, slightly nerdier resemblance to her former partner Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D’Agosto), who she had a massive, unrequited crush on.

Armed with a passing familiarity with inspirational movies about withdrawn high school students overcoming adversity, you might think you can predict where “Rocket Science” will go — a professional relationship between Hal and Ginny that blossoms into young love, a variety of pitfalls followed by a grand resolution and a policy debate championship. But Blitz’s tartly humorous screenplay (which, impressively, is his first) pushes itself in unexpected directions; no less than three crucial moments in the film send Hal’s life in refreshingly shocking directions. To say more about those moments or the plot would spoil the sheer pleasure of their surprise, so let’s turn our attention elsewhere.

As young Hal Hefner — the name, I suspect, is a cruel joke at this poor playboy’s expense — Thompson gives one of the best performances of the year. He’s like Harry Altman, the fast-talking, bad-joke-cracking kid in “Spellbound” pulled inside out: all the awkwardness, none of the showmanship. His uncanny stuttering is at times too convincing — we empathize with the underqualified psychiatrist who has long since exhausted every workable option for curing his pathology and whose half-hearted suggestions now amount to him encouraging Hal to speak like he’s from another country. That leads to a hysterical sequence where our inept hero stammers through his first policy debate in a hapless Asian accent.

Comparisons to Wes Anderson, and particularly to “Rushmore,” are inevitable but, for my money, Anderson hasn’t made a movie this trenchantly funny since that very one, nearly a decade ago. “Rocket Science” is full of wonderful moments, like a sequence that imagines what the classic boombox scene from Cameron Crowe’s “Say Anything” would look like with a cello (as it turns out, there is a great deal more broken glass involved). And even if I liked Max Fischer, I didn’t root for him the way I did for Hal Hefner.

“Rocket Science” opens in limited release on August 10th (official site).



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.