Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Along with the trashy teen/coming of age/college comedies like American Pie, the 1990s ushered in a derivative subgenre of literate youth films, stories that concerned themselves with issues closer to home than the next flatulence joke. Whit Stillman may have started the trend with his downright cerebral Metropolitan, a story of New York debutante society that could be taking place anywhere in time from 1965 to 1980. The writing relies on the occasional comedy zinger but more often resembles a stylized version of the way young people talk .... or are thought to talk .... or wished they talked. The characters are invariably well-to-do, independent of the need to scrape together a living and preoccupied with the analytical skills they learned in liberal arts literature classes. Part Woody Allen and part self-absorbed introspection, the characters of these films can't tell if they're living a life or simply experiencing an un-lived existence, as exterior critics of their own desires, shortcomings and anxieties.
Writer-director Noah Baumbach entered the arena with 1995's Kicking and Screaming, an amusing collegiate comedy with clever dialogue and mixed ambitions. Despite a few commercial compromises, the endearing young cast pokes through with the occasional fresh moment, and the film is consistently likeable.
A group of college graduates with "Math scores too low for Brown" spends a summer in a state of inertia, unprepared to decide what to do next. They end up forming an informal pack of layabouts. The genial Grover (Josh Hamilton) actually had plans to live with his girlfriend Jane (Olivia d'Abo) but she packs off suddenly for Prague, and sends him phone messages he never answers. Max (Chris Eigeman) does nothing but crossword puzzles and beds Miami (Parker Posey), the girlfriend of his pal Skippy (Jason Wiles), who simply decides to re-enroll even though he never does any homework. Insecure Otis (Carlos Jacott) bails on graduate work at another school and re-joins his friends to bum around campus. Max has to deal with the breakup of his parents, and ends up dating local tough-girl teenager Kate (Cara Buono), his exact opposite. The group gathers to drink, exchange witticisms and otherwise try to rationalize their odd existence with clever byplay. Their greatest fear is ending up like Chet (Eric Stoltz), a professional student in his tenth year who started by being unable to leave the campus life.
The talented Noah Baumbach is the offspring of eastern literary luminaries. His Kicking and Screaming obviously commanded development attention for its non-stop witticisms and "inspired observations." The disc box is decorated with them: "We stay together out of fear"; "I'm nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday," and "Why do you need more friends?" In many ways Baumbach's dialogues are perfectly suited to his slightly narcissistic young men, who criticize each other while casting their own aimlessness in romantic nihilism. They haven't achieved anything: "Keats was dead before he was twenty-four." Each sees himself as the star of an unappreciated drama: "I've inherited a tragedy." And they invent self-defeating excuses for their dead-end habits: "There's food in the beer."
The boys' personal argot forms a group identity stronger than Skippy's proposed club, the Cougars. Kids love to think they've invented a meaningful society through shared verbal short cuts ("Ding!") and Baumbach captures this beautifully. Actually, the boys are suffering from the debilitating disease that could be called acute self-awareness. A standard greeting is the question "Did you beat off today?", acknowledging the pointlessness of their petty concerns. They pass the time with purposely inane quizzes: "Name all the Friday the 13th Movies."
The acknowledged culprit in this malaise is the cozy womb of college life. The boys are unprepared to stop being students, to lose their position as Seniors. They can no longer cherry-pick from younger classes brimming with available girls. Even when they make sane choices in girlfriends, they fumble the ball. Grover's Jane opts for adventure and new experience right after graduation, which leaves Grover scrambling for lame reasons why she shouldn't go to Prague. Otis lives in a state of arrested development, as indicated when Max notices that he wears pajama tops during the day. Yet Otis and the others have no trouble picking up girls. Max is stymied when a potential date calls him "Old Man River" because he's 22! Max falters, taking up the bedroom invitation of Skippy's girl Miami. Like most of the women associated with the group, Miami knows the score: "All you guys are in love with each other." When Max comes up against a real challenge, the un-schooled, crowbar-wielding Kate, he's at least aware that he's experiencing life instead of watching it go by.
Kicking and Screaming isn't perfection; sometimes it seems like a laid-back collegiate version of the old TV sitcom Cheers, with young kids that are far too articulate about their place in the cosmos. This is perhaps a natural thing when the author is an extremely articulate writer capable of embellishing his real-life experiences on a higher literary level. But much of the writing comes off as sitcom quality filler, place-holders for insights that might tie Baumbach's world together. Grover has the "I don't want to hear about my parents' sex life" speech with his father (Elliott Gould), and it just seems to be marking time. The movie creates a believable state of entropy for its likeable characters, and only breaks it at the end for a welcome but hardly creative sentimental touch. Grover finally makes a positive romantic move, which gives us a memorable and endearing image of Ms. d'Abo smiling while playing with her orthodontic retainer. Unfortunately, it seems like something that should be happening at the end of Act 1, not the finale.
Kicking and Screaming labors under commercial necessities. The distributor is Trimark, which in 1995 also released Biohazard: The Alien Force and Leprechaun 3. Trimark would seem to have insisted on a couple of dorm scenes with nudity. The present trend in movies is for either exploitative raunch films with nudes galore, or 'quality' comedies that respect women by keeping them covered up (how tasteful). Baumbach's film is caught between two poles. It certainly compares favorably with the previous year's Sleep with Me, a 20-something serio-comedy from the same producer but lacking a commercial hook. We know that Baumbach didn't have artistic freedom because he scrambled at the last minute to write in the Eric Stoltz character to give Trimark an exploitable star. That's funny, because Stoltz was in Sleep with Me and the film received only the thinnest of releases. The good news about Kicking and Screaming is that the compromise barely shows.
Noah Baumbach's film jump-started several young acting careers. For many of the talented folk on display Kicking and Screaming is their first screen work, and Chris Eigeman's fortunes have taken an upswing of late as well.
Criterion's disc of Kicking and Screaming presents the handsome independent film in a sparkling enhanced transfer that flatters its unfussy visuals. Rock 'n' Roll music doesn't dominate the soundtrack, although the film is pleasantly dated by the absence of cel phones.
Writer-director Baumbach's still-burgeoning career is well served by Criterion's extras. Disc producer Johanna Schiller stresses new video interviews, with Baumbach and his cast members Chris Eigeman, Josh Hamilton, and Carlos Jacott. Ecstatic fans of the film will go directly to a selection of deleted scenes, while those eager to see more of Baumbach's work will want to watch his 2000 short film Conrad and Butler Take a Vacation. The disc also includes original IFC 'EPK'-style interviews from 1995 (where Josh Hamilton readily admits that his own college banter wasn't half as witty as Baumbach's script) and the theatrical trailer, which zeroes in on the film's highlights and makes it seem like a much wilder comedy. The text insert has a typically perceptive essay from Jonathan Rosenbaum.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Kicking and Screaming rates:
Movie: Very Good
Sound: Excellent 5.1 audio remix
Supplements: Interview with writer-director Baumbach; video conversation featuring Baumbach, Chris Eigeman, Josh Hamilton, and Carlos Jacott; Deleted scenes; Conrad and Butler Take a Vacation a 2000 short film directed by Baumbach and starring Carlos Jacott and John Lehr; 1995 interviews with Baumbach and the cast, Trailer, Essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 16, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
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