Monday, November 5, 2007


"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.

Originally written August 29, 2006. For technical specs and special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.


Jamie S. Rich said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kevin said...

I was looking for this quote today, and arrived here. While I understand Kicking and Screaming is not the best film ever made, for me maybe my favorite of all time. and I will go on ad nauseam with anyone who will listen with recommendation and insistence that they see it, with a passion that only a Firefly junkie could equal. I totally understood where these guys' minds were at and appreciated their wit and sense of humor and fear of heading out into the unknown. I also liked Metropolitan and Barcelona quite a bit, but this one stole my heart. Have you seen the first several Hal Hartley films? More greatness. Though I confess I haven't seen those since I've seen those. While kicking and screaming I return to either in writing or annually with another viewing. I've been a little hard on Baumbach, expressing my disappointment that nothing he's done since has grabbed me as much as that first film.

Jamie S. Rich said...

Kevin, I never connected with Hartley for some reason. I never found the warmth in his work, or got past the contrivances. But then, I've also been moved by a lot of later Baumbach, so we just might be different there! :)