Oh, Judge Kerry Birmingham's been to Prague...well, not "been to Prague" been to Prague. Milwaukee, mainly. But he likes it there.
Our review of Kicking And Screaming, published October 28th, 2005, is also available.
"Ready for anything…prepared for nothing."
We probably have Wes Anderson to thank for this mercifully high-quality reissue of Noah Baumbach's otherwise obscure slacker comedy Kicking and Screaming. Baumbach, laboring in his own corner of the independent film world as sort of a bargain-basement Whit Stillman for much of the 1990s, earned some wider interest in the film community for co-writing Anderson's The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and his own nautically-titled The Squid and the Whale. Before that, using a stable of recognizable character actors in largely improv situations, Baumbach wrote and directed several deadpan comedies, of which Kicking and Screaming (not to be confused with the 2005 Will Ferrell soccer comedy) was the most memorable. A barebones DVD long out of print, Criterion turns its critical eye towards Baumbach's cult masterpiece, possibly the only entry in its catalog that references both Josie and the Pussycats and Milan Kundera.
Facts of the Case
Four recent college graduates face uncertain futures as they mill about their school's campus for another year. Man-child Otis (Carlos Jacott, She Spies) delays graduate school to live with his mother and work at a video store. Skippy (Jason Wiles, Third Watch) tries to relive his glory days by re-enrolling, much to the annoyance of his girlfriend Miami (Parker Posey, Superman Returns). Misanthropic Max (Chris Eigeman, Gilmore Girls) does crosswords, makes questionable relationship decisions, and…does crosswords, mostly. Heartbroken Grover (Josh Hamilton, The Bourne Identity) grieves over the post-graduation departure of his girlfriend, Jane (Olivia d'Abo, The Wonder Years).
"Oh, I'll tell you the worst thing about losing a foot…"
"This is useless. We just have to walk away, like mothers at nursery school."
"I like a bartender who drinks. Otherwise I feel like I'm being poisoned."
Kicking and Screaming was virtually a defining movie of my youth. A slacker comedy released in the glut of slacker comedies in the wake of Dazed & Confused and Clerks (themselves in constant rotation in my VCR during my teen years), Kicking and Screaming was ignored by critics and audiences. For a few viewers, though, K&S hit a chord. Shapeless, plotless, and so emblematic of its genre that it failed to distinguish itself from a busy lot, it achieved a second life on video that it never had at art houses. It was, indeed, painfully exemplary of the much-abused genre of slacker comedy, but it did have more going for it. It was infinitely quotable (the snippets above don't even begin to do justice to the film's many great lines). Its low-budget charms were emphasized by a vaguely familiar cast ("Isn't that the dude from Barcelona?"). Amid its meandering story of paralyzing indecision and bittersweet parting was a core group of friends who talked about the things that didn't matter—monkey movies, crossword puzzles, bathroom etiquette—as if they were the ONLY thing that mattered. It didn't need an actual narrative or naturalistic dialogue, it had aimless protagonists whose inarticulate ineptitude was relatable to our equally aimless teenage selves. In other words, it was about people just like us!
Of course, you're not a teenager forever, a fact for which I will forever be grateful to whatever power there might actually be in the universe. The VHS tape in my collection long since worn out, Criterion's fancy-pants edition comes along fully a decade later, when I'm older and…okay, possibly just older. Now being old enough to see how things from when I was a younger lad had aged poorly (gaze at the Friends haircuts, and despair!), there was some hesitation in diving into what had become a DVD grail elevated by nostalgia. How would it hold up, very much a picture of its time (and mine), more than ten years later?
The answer is it that it's still a favorite, though for different reasons. The dialogue still has its snap; there are lines I'm still bandying about all these years later, and more that sneak up on you on subsequent viewings. What resonates now, however, is the emotional content. Now closer to the demographic of the characters in the film, it's the more subtle, even mature content that stands out. Behind the veneer of ironic pop culture savvy and the narrative listlessness typical of its genre is a beating heart, in the form of Grover and Jane's romance, told mostly in flashback. Simultaneously sentimental and honest, the snapshots of their tentative romance and its eventual erosion are the delicate thread that keeps the film from breaking down into vignettes and in-joke indulgences. Like real relationships, Grover and Jane's courtship is tender, awkward, joyous, a little sad, and ends for no reason at all, or at least no real GOOD reason. It's startling, in retrospect, just how affecting their story—the closest thing to an actual character arc—really is. That this was there the entire time in the midst of lines like "Don't you wish there was another position in sex? Just something else to do?" speaks volumes of the film's (apparently well-hidden) depth.
The strength of the Jane-Grover pair (and Hamilton and d'Abo's pitch-perfect portrayal thereof) elevates the other characters' non-stories and their performances. Eiegeman's restless, misanthropic Max is sort of a stock character for the actor, but his angry aimlessness and eyebrow-raising incidental salvation rings true. Wiles and Posey, as earnest Skippy and Miami, get short shrift in terms of character, but nonetheless exemplify a certain breed of college hipster couple. Jacott's anxiety-ridden manchild Otis doesn't have a whole lot of emotional depth, resigned to a role akin to Frankenstein as written by Woody Allen, but he steals every scene he's in. Eric Stoltz (Killing Zoe), fulfilling the requirement that he and/or Parker Posey appear in every independent film of the '90s, plays the minor role (expanded by the actor and Baumbach to ensure financing) of Chet, perennial student and bartender, who dishes out some bon mots and wisdom in a funny, thankless part. That most of these performers have gone on to become ubiquitous character actors is a testament to the deftness with which they play somewhat stereotypical characters and the shrewdness of their casting.
The transfer is impeccable. The lack of a commentary track is a noteworthy omission, though Baumbach does participate in an interview new to this edition that illuminates some of K&S's origins, as well as in new interviews with cast members Eigeman, Hamilton, and Jacott. Baumbach offers a meager three deleted scenes with text introductions, as well as a standard trailer. Particularly strange is the inclusion of the short film Conrad and Butler in "Conrad and Butler Take a Vacation," starring Jacott and John Lehr (10 Items or Less) (who has a small role in Kicking and Screaming) as roommates who, yes, go on vacation. Apparently conceived as a franchise, it's a head-scratcher and kind of a dud. At 30 minutes, it's much too long, and only intermittently funny (the burden of all improv comedy). A nice curiosity, but only worth watching once. The packaging is typically excellent Criterion design, complete with a K&S-themed crossword puzzle on the inner sleeve.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While I praise the film's complete lack of a story, there's every chance a viewer will sit down to watch this and about halfway through ask, "What is this movie about?" Its self-involved characters and rampant disregard for coherent plotting will be a turn-off even if one is predisposed to like the dry wit and identify with the post-collegiate malaise. The amorphousness and particular brand of hilarious despair that appeals to me here may be lost on viewers with different temperaments.
Come for the one-liners; stay for the bittersweet romance. Baumbach was certainly not a fully-formed filmmaker here, but there are hints here of the excellence that would come with The Squid and the Whale. Its insistence on self-indulgent humor and trade in wan irony probably sank its acceptance as anything other than a low-budget indie comedy. The Squid and the Whale had the benefit of period-drama gloss and the implied authenticity of autobiography, but Kicking and Screaming as a prototype of a deadpan coming-of-age is full of more humor and heart than you would expect.
Not guilty. Go Cougars!
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