Judge David Johnson doubts that even the Superfans will enjoy this flat-footed Will Ferrell comedy, despite the presence of "Dikka" himself.
Our review of Kicking And Screaming: Criterion Collection, published April 2nd, 2007, is also available.
All his life Phil Weston has dreamed of being on a winning team. Phil…your time has come.
The latest comedy by Will Ferrell (Elf) places him in the role of a soccer dad as he slowly goes over the edge trying to win. It's true there is much fertile comic ground to till with regards to overzealous sports parents, but does Kicking and Screaming score or should it get tagged with a yellow card? Or is it blue card? I don't know. I hate soccer.
Facts of the Case
Ferrell plays Phil Weston, a laid-back guy who owns a vitamin store. He's a loving husband and father, but as a son, he has never managed to impress his ultra-competitive father Buck (Robert Duvall, Open Range).
As a child, Phil was relentlessly pushed to participate in any sport he could, despite his glaring lack of talent and athleticism. Phil the adult continues to be unsuccessful in finding favor with this father.
Now he watches his son Sam warm the bench, playing for Buck's soccer team, like he did years ago. Later, Phil is stunned to find out that Buck actually traded Sam, his own grandson no less, to the last-place Tigers.
That disbelief is turned into mild distress, when circumstances lead to Phil taking over as the Tigers' head coach. The team he's inherited is made up of—get this—misfits and cute kids who pretty much suck at soccer but just might have it in them to win!
Growing increasingly desperate for wins, and feeling the pressure of the parents, Phil enlists the help of Mike Ditka (played by himself) to whip the kids into shape. And with the addition of a couple of young Italian ringers, the Tigers find themselves on a collision course with…well, I don't want to ruin the surprise and reveal the identity of the blisteringly obvious team the Tigers will face in the finals. Needless to say, there are a bunch of sappy life lessons, and a few heroic soccer maneuvers, and lots of wigging out by Will Ferrell.
Here is a movie that seemingly has all the right ingredients to produce a sure-fire family comedy, but, remarkably, comes out utterly flat and unfunny. It pains me to say this, as I am a huge fan of Will Ferrell, but Kicking and Screaming sucks.
I think the film is a case study of ideas looking stellar on paper, but somewhere in the translation to the screen, the humor and amusement were siphoned out. Look, you've got a rising comic star and almost a bona fide box office draw (Will Ferrell), a time-tested premise (cute kids playing sports), cute kids (see "time-tested premise"), an inspired, bizarre cameo (Mike Ditka), and two attractive lesbian parents. What could go wrong? Lots.
For starters, this was just a plain old unfunny comedy. A few jokes landed, mainly due to Ferrell's deft delivery, but these were merely dots in an arid wasteland of starved attempts at humor. Sure you have the obligatory overt-the-top physical comic set-ups (e.g. Phil throws a dart at an aquarium and miraculously the aquarium breaks and water and fish spill out; a tetherball match gets weirdly and unrealistically out of control), but their inclusion seems less to serve the story and more to make the audience laugh at all costs. It doesn't work.
Let's see, what else doesn't work? Oh, the storylines. Not a single narrative clicked for me. First is the overall premise, of Phil and his transformation into a lunatic coach hell-bent on winning, but this metamorphosis is so drastic and sudden the outlandishness sucks away any realism or subtlety; one moment, Phil is a gentle, likeable, sensitive guy then the next he's a crazed idiot taunting children. Yes it does look kinda funny reading it here, but in execution it's forced and stupid. There's also a thing about Phil and newfound addition to coffee, but save for showing Will Ferrell freak out and act hyper, it's more of a distraction than a meaningful part of the story.
Next we've got Mike Ditka. His inclusion in the proceedings is amusing at first, but the film never plays it out to any kind of meaningful conclusion. He shows up, makes the kids do pushups for a while, then quickly fades to the background, before leaving the story almost entirely. He would have been better used as a cameo, but the filmmakers' half-interested commitment to his story is stark.
Finally is the father-son dynamic that powers the film. Phil and Buck's conflict is the generator for much of Phil's overreaction, but this plotline is never really emotionally resolved. Duvall delivers some boilerplate "now-I-finally-know-what's-important-in-my-life" drivel at the end, but in all of his scenes prior to that, he was an utterly contemptible a-hole. His enlightenment was more a device and less an actual change of heart.
The last thing I want to mention about this film is the kids. Are they cute and funny? For the most part. Yet throughout they're never more than props. The kids aren't the focus of this movie: Will Ferrell, and to a lesser extent Robert Duvall are. The result: we never get to know the kids, and their predictable rise to fame is little less than a plot development we all know is coming. In fact, some of the cutesy shtick got real annoying.
Basically, I think this film represents a squandered opportunity. There is much to lampoon in the ridiculous world of parental antics and children's sports, but Kicking and Screaming abandoned a witty, thoughtful exploration and opted for a formulaic, outrageous succession of detached-from-reality set-pieces. A waste.
Visually and aurally, the film holds up well: a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks great and the 5.1 Dolby Digital mix is solid.
The disc features a bunch of extras, varying in degrees of quality. Behind-the-scenes documentaries include "From Rome to Hollywood," which highlights the two young Italian actors, "Kickin' It with the Kids," featuring interviews with the child stars, "Soccer Camp," a look at the training sessions for the soccer scenes (which were edited so quickly by the way, it's impossible to tell if the kids had any soccer skills anyway) and "Behind the Net: The Making of Kicking and Screaming," a bulkier, general featurette on the shoot, complete with interview with the filmmakers and the kids and adult stars. A set of deleted scenes, alternate takes, and a funny blooper reel round out the offering.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Griping about these family-friendly movies is always a chore for me, mainly because the PG rating is such a rarity. If I were viewing this film through the lenses of a parent wanting to rent something to watch with their kids that was completely inoffensive or imported from Japan, I'd probably be more forgiving. I still think this film is a big disappointment, but for a family movie night it might just work.
Will, I love you, but this film did nothing for me.
Guilty. Yellow card awarded.
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Scales of Justice
• "Behind the Net: The Making of Kicking and Screaming"
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