"You know, I started writing 'go to bed' and 'wake up' in my date book as if they were two different events." - Max (Chris Eigeman) in Noah Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming
Kicking and Screaming, the first film by writer/director Noah Baumbach (The Squid & the Whale, co-conspirator of Wes Anderson on The Life Aquatic) has been a sort of lost curiosity from the mid-'90s indie movement. Overshadowed by the violent aftermath of Reservoir Dogs, it has faded into the background over time, only available on VHS from places that still rented out such oddities. I know I for one had smooshed it together in my mind with Sleep With Me, another film from the same period that also featured Eric Stoltz and Parker Posey. So much so that when Kicking and Screaming was ending, I wondered what happened to Quentin Tarantino's cameo. Completely wrong movie.
It puzzles me as to why this happened, because as the credits rolled, not only was I glad that Q.T. hadn't stepped in and disrupted the flow of this tightly scripted, tonally consistent picture, but I was also surprised at how well Kicking and Screaming has aged. Better than me and my booze-soaked brain, apparently.
Now, to be fair, I wasn't completely wrong about what movie this was. I did see Kicking and Screaming sometime closer to its release. The opening party sequence, with the bored stiff and scared witless college kids viewing their graduation more as a thing to be mourned than celebrate, is something I remembered very well. If I recall, my feeling at the time of first seeing it was twofold. One, it felt like a rip-off of the style Whit Stillman had established in Metropolitan and Barcelona. They even shared a main actor in Chris Eigeman. Two, Kicking and Screaming wasn't as good as what it was copying.
I don't know what was wrong with me back then. Maybe I was too in love with Stillman, maybe I was too close in age to Baumbach's characters and too much of an overachiever to find any reason to watch them go nowhere. I can't say for sure. All I know is I was completely off my rocker. Noah Baumbach had pulled off something all his own with Kicking and Screaming. In sticking with the indie film parlance of the time, Kicking and Screaming is like a Quentin Tarantino script directed by Whit Stillman. It has the pop-culture zing of the former, but the over-privileged ennui of the latter.
Baumbach's film concerns itself with a group of four friends, all of whom have just finished their education at a small East Coast college. They spend their time quizzing themselves with ridiculous pop culture challenges, like naming eight films that have monkeys as protagonists. (I can't believe Baumbach missed the opportunity to have someone be smartassed enough to note King Kong was a gorilla, not a monkey.) Of the four of them, only two have plans of what to do with themselves, and it doesn't take long before even those fall apart. Otis (Carlos Jacott, Being John Malkovich) chickens out before getting on his plane to go to grad school in Milwaukee to study mechanical engineering. Grover (Josh Hamilton, The House of Yes) was all set to go to Brooklyn and be a writer, but when his girlfriend Jane (Olivia d'Abo, TV's "The Wonder Years") tells him she's going to Prague instead, he craps out, too.
The problem is that all of these boys are comfortable with the structure that college has given them, and they aren't ready to strike out on their own. Real life scares them, but none of them wants to admit to it. They've spent all of their time thinking about books and movies and things that have no practical application in life, and like so many that have earned their diplomas before and since, no clue how to make the previous four years of their life translate into a career. None of them want to be Chet (played with a sort of self-aware glee by Stoltz), the perpetual student who is on his ninth year and third or fourth degree, but the job Otis gets at the video store is not looking so enticing either. (Props to Baumbach for his hilarious skewering of the film-geek video store mentality, and the then-popular belief that every clerk was a future Tarantino. More often than not, they were more likely lucky to even be the future Troy Duffy.) Only Skippy (Jason Wiles, "Third Watch") takes the plunge and re-enrolls, much to the annoyance of his girlfriend, Miami (Posey). The rest are content with going nowhere, doing nothing more than the crossword in the course of a day.
Grover is clearly the one closest to Baumbach's heart, and he functions as the lead character of Kicking and Screaming. He dreams of being a writer, but judging from the criticism we hear of his short stories, he writes about the sort of empty experiences he has with the other boys (Skippy thinks they should be a gang and call themselves the Cougars). Jane is the only real thing in his life, and once she is gone, there is nothing left for him. He obsesses over what their romance was like early in the relationship, and the story of their first flirtations is woven through Kicking and Screaming as a flashback. Of course, these interactions are the only meaningful connections anyone makes in the movie, something Grover's father can likely see. The old man, played excellently by Elliott Gould, does everything but hit his son over the head to try to get him to take action. His stories about the love he found late in his life have the obvious flavor of sagely wisdom, but it takes Grover a little while to catch up.
The thing is, these are not people we should really care that much about. Their problems seem petty in comparison to the vastness of the world available to them, but that is perhaps what makes Baumbach's concoction so smart. All these guys really have to do is step outside their front door and take the opportunities that await them. Otis won't do it because he'd have to adjust to a new time zone, whereas Max (Eigeman at his bitter and sarcastic best) would have to drop his guard and actually care about something. (Ironically, his relationship with Kate (Cara Buono), the underage girl who works in the cafeteria, ends up being the healthiest coupling in the movie, heading straight for love, marriage, and the baby carriage.) These are smart guys, and Baumbach gives them smart and clever things to say. They just need some guts. As a writer, Baumbach sees human existence actually is a collection of petty concerns, and the line drawn in Kicking and Screaming is that the world is separated by people who put in the effort and those who do not, the ones who get on a plane and go to Prague versus those who stay inside to see if the actors can get the stains out of their clothes on the newest detergent commercial.
When it comes down to it, Max is missing the wisdom in his own words. There is a difference between waking up and going to bed, and sometimes that difference can mean your whole life.
For a low-budget indie film over a decade old, Kicking and Screaming looks really good. I'm not just talking about the transfer the Criterion Collection has given it, which is really sweet, but it's shot well. Rather than feeling low-budget as so many indies do, Baumbach and his director of photography, Steven Bernstein, achieve a natural look. Kicking and Screaming takes place in a college town with college apartments and college bars, and the location looks like someplace where people actually live and go to school.
From a technical standpoint, this DVD has a solid widescreen, high-definition transfer preserving its 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
A really good digital 5.1 audio mix. It's a talking-heads picture where the characters spout off convoluted mouthfuls about books and philosophy, and I could understand everything they said. It's kind of a simple demand, but it's also pretty crucial.
Criterion has loaded up the DVD of Kicking and Screaming with the usual parade of informative supplements.
Chief among these is a brand new video interview with Noah Baumbach. He traces the genesis of the script through the writing process and on the road to production. He speaks candidly about dealing with the studios and the lessons he learned, including admitting he had a pretty good go of it for the first time out of the gate. Amidst the conversation, we see pages of script, including notes he made on them, and photos from the various development stages--even pictures with the college buddies he based the film's characters on.
Memory lane continues in new conversations between Noah Baumbach and his main actors: Chris Eigeman, Josh Hamilton, and Carlos Jacott. Baumbach and Jacott were college pals, and originally Jacott was to play Max. Once the studio got involved, though, they switched some roles around, as Eigeman was getting some heat off of the Stillman movies. Though Baumbach talks to each performer individually, they are edited so that their anecdotes and memories weave together. The result is a frank discussion that gives us a sense of what it was like to be on the set and make this movie. By comparison, the 1995 Independent Film Channel interviews of the same people--along with Olivia D'Abo and Carla Buono--are more marketing oriented, but also more in the moment.
There are three deleted scenes, each with an explanatory note from Baumbach about what they are and some impressions of them now. They are essentially character moments that don't add much, but in the case of the Grover and Jane scene, the information actually might have detracted from the sweetness of their love affair.
The trailer for the movie is hilarious, because it tries to sell this sardonic film as a breezy ensemble comedy. It's edited to Blondie's "Heart of Glass," which is in the film, but it's definitely a studio selling a bill of goods to an unsuspecting audience.
Lastly is the short film Conrad and Butler in "Conrad and Butler Take a Vacation," directed by Baumbach in 2000 and starring Jacott and John Lehr, who played Louis, the strange student from Grover's writing class, in Kicking and Screaming. The pair play bickering friends who go on an ill-conceived trip to pretty much nowhere. Improvised and shot on digital video, it was intended to be a springboard for a larger project. It has some amusing moments, and Jacott and Lehr have a natural rapport, but it's kind of slight and maybe a little too long (about 30 minutes).
I'd like to also comment on the packaging of Kicking and Screaming. Any studio can buy DVD cases in bulk, slap a cover together, and send a disc out. It's always nice when a little extra care is taken. Criterion has designed a cover for Kicking and Screaming that fits with the tone of the movie. The cover is decorated with handwritten quotes from the film, which could be seen as somewhat conceited ("Look at all the catchphrases we have!") until you read them and realize you remember them all from the film. They have used a clear DVD case so they can also print on the inside of the sleeve. When you open it up, you find a lengthy crossword puzzle with more quotes, which is great because Max is obsessed with doing crosswords in the movie. I am tempted to photocopy this and see if it's actually a functional puzzle. The look of the cover materials is then used again for the animated menus, creating a nice synchronicity.
As per usual, there is a booklet with liner notes, this time by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum from the Chicago Reader. It's an enlightening piece, placing Kicking and Screaming in the context of Baumbauch's biography and his other work. (And, for the record, I read it after I wrote my review, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover Rosenbaum and I hit some of the same notes. Not bad for me and my booze-soaked brain.)
Once again, the Criterion Collection has rescued an underappreciated movie from the backrooms of an uncaring studio and given it the star treatment. Kicking and Screaming ranks as Highly Recommended. Noah Baumbach has taken an accurate snapshot of post-college boys who have no idea how to become men. Kicking and Screaming has a wry wit that doesn't feel at all dated, and when he sets out to strike an emotional chord, Baumbach gets it just right.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.