October Sky
Director: Joe Johnston
Screenplay: Lewis Colick, from the book Rocket Boys by Homer H. Hickam, Jr.
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper, William Lee Scott
NY Distribution Status: now playing (Universal)

Grade: C+

As a general rule, I make an effort to see any movie that receives a significant number of glowing reviews, but last spring I spent several weeks studiously (and guiltily) avoiding this minor critical darling; not until it turned up at Manhattan's second-run discount theater last week was I finally able to dredge up the necessary enthusiasm. My reservations stemmed from the film's trailer, which made it look nauseatingly cornball; turns out that it's merely irritatingly cornball -- exactly the kind of hokum that Monty Python parodied more than two decades ago in their sketch about a young coal miner and his derisive playwright father. ("There's nowt wrong wi' gala luncheons, lad! I've had more gala luncheons than you've had hot dinners!") Typical of its earnest clumsiness is the scene in which Homer seeks out the help of the school's resident math nerd in the cafeteria at lunchtime: after being warned that his social reputation will surely suffer if he's seen consorting with a pariah, our stubborn hero sits down at the forbidden table anyway -- and instantly the room is filled with the quietly cacophonous sound of dozens of teenaged actors energetically muttering "rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb" (or whatever the contemporary equivalent may be). The clichés fly as fast and furious as the homemade missiles, rendering the based-on-a-true-story title card a bit laughable in retrospect -- are we actually supposed to believe, for example, that Hickam's tyrannical pa (played, in a delicious bit of irony, by Matewan's Chris Cooper) caved in to the union and settled a strike just so that one of his workers could return to the lathe and fashion a key exhibit for Homer's Science Fair project? More interesting than anything in the movie itself is the fact -- allegedly a coincidence, though Hopper is skeptical* -- that the bland substitute title October Sky is a perfect anagram of the original one, Rocket Boys. Better that than Stocky Bore, I guess.

* (inside joke for Leslie; everybody else substitute "I'm" for "Hopper is"; don't write asking because it's a silly you-had-to-be-there thing involving a long wait for a bus and a promotional Bug's Life action figure from McDonald's)