Kicking and Screaming

What is it about Saturday Night Live actors from the 1990s and their inability to escape sketch comedy characters? While Kicking and Screaming isn’t based on an SNL character per se, Will Ferrell once again falls back to the tricks and tactics that worked for him on TV but fall desperately flat in a feature length film. Ferrell’s improv acting may not be the only miserable thing about the movie, but it’s certainly one of the worst. It falls to him to carry most of the story but at best he drags it along, kicking and screaming, right to the bitter finish. You know you’re in trouble when a movie’s soundtrack goes from the theme for Chariots of Fire to Chicago’s “You’re My Inspiration” in the first two minutes. While those two minutes, which consist mainly of Will Ferrell falling on his face, may have looked injurious for the actor, I couldn’t help but suspect that I was in for a much more painful experience.

Phil Weston, played by Ferrell, has always lived his life in the shadow of a father who was better at everything and loved rubbing it in. When his father, who coaches Phil’s son’s soccer team, announces that he’s trading his own grandson off to the Tigers, the worst team in the league, Phil is so furious he just might do something drastic. Actually he just ends up complaining behind his father’s back. The Tigers’ coach bails after only one game and Phil steps up to the plate, vowing that his group of loser misfits will defeat his father’s team of league champions.

The movie strives earnestly to reinforce that all important spirit behind kids soccer: it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, but whether or not your coach can overcome his psychological problems and come to grips with the inferiority complex created in his childhood by his overly competitive father. To help achieve this goal, Phil enlists the help of his father’s neighbor and arch-rival, Super Bowl winning football coach Mike Ditka. I suppose there’s some kind of joke in there about how soccer is called football by pretty much everyone in the world except America, but that would be too clever an observation for this film. Mike plays himself in the movie, providing the energy that Ferrell just can’t seem to muster. Between Ditka and Robert Duvall, who plays Phil’s heady father, they manage to lessen the pain caused by a lackluster script and even less interesting leading man.

The Tigers are soccer’s version of the Bad News Bears (another Ditka pun, perhaps?), only with less language and dumber jokes. Through this group of rowdy youngsters and their self-conscious coach, the story acknowledges that a vast majority of A.D.D. cases, both in children and adults alike, aren’t caused so much by genetics as a lack of discipline and a horrific codependency on caffeine. It’s not bad enough the kids don’t know how to play soccer, they genuinely don’t seem to want to either. They’re too busy being peevish and belligerent while wolfing down whatever sugar products they can get their hands on.

In the midst of the Tigers’ depressing losing streak we’re introduced to Gian Pierre and Massimo. These two Italian boys take time out of their busy schedules as apprentice butchers to prove that so long as Europe and South America continue to play soccer, Americans in general shouldn’t bother competing. The Italian heroes are drafted in with the Tigers, handily taking the team to the top of the league. Meanwhile Coach Phil’s head swells with pride as he tears the rest of the team apart in an effort to prove he’s better than his old man. Throw in a couple of token homosexual parents and a ref in a toupee and you can imagine the kind of lame humor that results.

The movie’s biggest flaw is a lack of originality. While the Mike Ditka angle is a clever one, the rest of the story is a rehashed mixture of Mighty Ducks meets The Big Green. What helped to make those movies work was the spotlight they focused on their talented child cast. Kicking and Screaming takes the ball away from the kiddos and gives it to Ferrell. In return, he spends more time falling down in slow motion than Caviezel did in The Passion of the Christ. There was something moving and powerful when Caviezel did it. Ferrell’s efforts are more akin to watching a Mr. Bean episode at half speed.

Overall the movie has a few chuckles and a couple of cute moments, but kids and adults alike will have a hard time finding it a winner. Towards the end of the movie Ferrell makes a moving speech to his team. He apologizes humbly and profusely for his failure to do his job and forcing them to endure such misery and hardship during his tenure. I pretended that he was saying it to me as someone who had to watch his movie and I felt a little better about things. Unfortunately, apologizing can’t make up for Kicking and Screaming’s copious embarrassments. A refund might be more appropriate. The movie may be an embarrassment, but the DVD makes a slightly better showing. The kid cast members finally get a word in edgewise while a calmer Ferrell sits back and lets someone else do the talking.

When your movie relies on improvisation as much as Kicking and Screaming does, you wind up with a lot of takes that might work pretty well. In the end, there can be only one that gets used, and the rest end up on the cutting room floor. Neither deleted scenes or outtakes, these gems fall into the category of “alternate takes” and in this case some have made their way onto the disc. They’re mostly examples of Ferrell babbling on and on in character but Ditka gets a few extra shots too. Along with the alternates are the more traditional deleted scenes and outtakes. While it’s not as humorous to see Ferrell screw up a scene as someone like Ditka or Duvall, it’s still funnier than most of the stuff that made it into the final picture.

The two actors who play Italians Gian Pierre and Massimo are not only the stars of the soccer team, they’re also the stars of they’re own featurette, entitled From Rome to Hollywood. Apparently the director and producers put more effort into finding the right kids to play these roles than the Brocollis did looking for their next Bond. The two are amazing little soccer players and its easy to see why they were cast for the film. There’s also not doubt that these two guys are very charismatic and its fun to listen to them speak their broken English, but you feel sorry for the other kids who were just as cute but didn’t get their own up close focus. As I watched them board their flight back to Italy, knowing they’d soon to be forgotten right along with their moment of fame, I wondered whatever happened to Elian.

Soccer Camp is another little featurette where the cast discuss what it was like to work with their soccer coach and choreographer “Soccer Dan” Metcalfe. Apparently in youth soccer league circles he’s some kind of hero. In the featurette it’s easy to see why. He has a lot of patience and genuine interest in seeing the kids succeed, knowing that if they’re having fun, the soccer scenes will come out looking great on the screen.

The grown ups and kids associated with the film each get their own little spotlights in two items entitled Kickin’ it with the Kids and the slightly more generic Behind the Net: The Making of Kicking and Screaming. The kids are darned amusing in their impromptu interview sessions, making me wonder all the more why the script wasn’t carved more around them than Ferrell. The writers and director have a few comments to share as well, confessing that the movie was more of a concept than a story and was developed along the way. That’s always a risky bet and in this case it just didn’t pay off. At least they all seemed to have had a good time making Kicking and Screaming, even if those of us who had to watch it can’t say the same thing.