Fans of Kicking and Screaming will be elated to know that it’s finally available on DVD in a striking new digital transfer from the Criterion Collection. And no, this isn’t the Will Ferrell/Robert Duvall soccer misfire. I’m talking about Noah Baumbach’s wryly funny, quietly affecting directorial debut about postgraduate angst and romantic uncertainty among a tight-knit group of college friends. This little-seen gem, lost in the shuffle of mid-90s indie gabfests, deserves a much larger audience and should find one as a result of Baumbach’s recent success.
For many moviegoers, last year’s The Squid and the Whale, arguably 2005’s best film, marked their first exposure to the keen insight and acidic wit of writer/director Noah Baumbach. At turns painful and hilarious, this semi-autobiographical dissection of a divorce, told largely from the children’s perspective, deservedly received an Oscar nod for Best Original Screenplay. Wes Anderson fans probably also know that Baumbach was co-writer on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, but I’d venture to say that few people have even heard of 1995’s Kicking and Screaming.
A near pitch-perfect romantic comedy set at a nameless East Coast university, the film follows four lost souls through that dreaded limbo period after graduation as they struggle to postpone the inevitable march toward adulthood and responsibility. It opens with aspiring writer Grover (Josh Hamilton) learning that girlfriend Jane (a luminous Olivia D’Abo) has been accepted to graduate school in Prague, effectively ending their relationship. He could go with her, but instead delivers a hilarious speech about how Prague is such a cliché and worries that she’ll “come back as a bug.”
Chris Eigeman, a fixture in Whit Stillman films like Metropolitan and Barcelona, plays Max, the surliest member of the group, intent on doing his crosswords and aiming pointed barbs at anyone in range of his lacerating wit. Otis (Carlos Jacott) is the lovable lummox, a hulking man-child afraid of his own shadow, while Skippy (Jason Wiles), concerned about having to pay back his student loans right away, decides to re-enroll in school, ostensibly to keep any eye on girlfriend Miami (the ubiquitous Parker Posey). Is it just me, or did Posey and Eric Stoltz appear in every indie film from this period? By the way, Stoltz is in this one too, playing Chet, a bartender/philosopher entering his tenth year as an undergraduate who offers nuggets of wisdom like - “How do you make God laugh? Make a plan.” To their credit, both actors shine in small but memorable roles.
An instantly quotable classic, Kicking and Screaming is that rare comedy that isn’t afraid to show its intelligence. Characters are equally at ease referencing Kant, Raymond Carver, and Hume as they are asking important questions like “Who won Bud Bowl II?” or “Who would you rather be stranded on a desert island with, MacNeil or Lehrer?” Paralyzed by self-doubt and more than a little lazy, they huddle together out of fear, content to immerse themselves in harmless minutiae rather than confront life’s bigger issues. As Max, Otis, and company while away the hours with endless trivia contests, the women in their lives grow increasingly frustrated with this lack of direction. Jane sums it up perfectly while commenting on one of Grover’s short stories: “All that thought and energy put into Saturday morning cartoons, I think it’s depressing.”
It may be depressing, but it’s awfully funny stuff. Baumbach gives his gifted ensemble plenty to work with and they take full advantage of the sharply written script. Eigeman is great as the snarky Max, suggesting that returning to old college hangouts would “be like doing Hollywood Squares.” Hamilton tells Stoltz that he likes a bartender who drinks – “that way I don’t feel like I’m getting poisoned.” But it’s Carlos Jacott who consistently provides the biggest laughs, whether he gets caught wearing a pajama top with his sport coat, insists on watching the end of a detergent commercial to “see if they get the stain out”, or tries vainly to pretend that he read All the Pretty Horses for a book club with Stoltz. It’s also worth mentioning that Elliott Gould has a great cameo as Grover’s equally neurotic father, still smarting from a recent separation and all too eager to share intimate details about his dating life with his son.
Kicking and Screaming is a surprisingly assured debut from a first-time filmmaker with no formal training. Baumbach hits all the right comic notes while at the same time skillfully unfolding the engaging love story at its core. Present-day action is periodically interrupted by artfully conceived flashbacks that chronicle the Jane/Grover courtship. These sequences are delicately framed by black and white stills that gradually transform into sepia tones and then color before coming to life. It’s a simple but astonishingly effective device that adds untold layers of emotion to this mostly lighthearted romp. It all culminates in Grover’s moving final monologue followed by one more flashback that ends the film on a haunting note, the kind of perfectly timed, abrupt final shot that leaves you with an ache in the chest.
It had been a few years since I’d seen Kicking and Screaming, my videotape copy long since lost, but I’ve always considered it one of my all-time favorite films. I wondered if I’d be disappointed in revisiting something once cherished. But I’m happy to say that, after eleven years and countless viewings, it’s still unbelievably funny and poignant in its heartfelt depiction of love, friendship, and the sheer joy of conversation. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.
The cover art for the Kicking and Screaming DVD pays loving homage to Baumbach’s clever writing by listing several key quotes from the film. Even the inset contains a crossword puzzle comprised entirely of additional pieces of dialogue – it’s a fitting tribute to the spirit of the movie. Criterion does an excellent job of adding supplemental material to its roster of films and this one is no exception.
The first two features were assembled in 2006 specifically for the DVD release. The first is an in-depth interview with Baumbach, who fondly remembers his days at Vassar, where he met Jacott and best friend Oliver “Bo” Berkman, who also gets a story credit. Citing Woody Allen as a major influence, Baumbach recalls using a letter from Steve Martin to help generate interest in the screenplay, originally titled “Fifth Year.” He also relates how one of his musical idols, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, agreed to contribute two original songs to the soundtrack.
It all ends rather abruptly, giving way to the next segment – an awkward set of discussions featuring Baumbach one-on-one with Eigeman, Hamilton, and Jacott. Instead of traditional interviews, they appear staged to resemble casual conversations, giving director and cast a chance to reminisce about the production. It all seems a bit forced, as all three actors do their best to heap praise on hot property Baumbach, apparently angling for parts in his next project. Despite this, it’s still fun to hear things like Eigeman and Hamilton’s realization that Jacott was running away with the movie.
The disc also contains a short film from 2000, “Conrad and Butler Take a Vacation,” directed by Baumbach and featuring Jacott and John Lehr, who also has a small role in Kicking and Screaming. Largely improvised and frequently funny, this half-hour buddy pic shot on home video is well worth a look. Another feature offers three deleted scenes that don’t add up to much. Finally, “Kicking and Screaming” offers the original 1995 interviews of the cast at the New York Film Festival, where we see how genuinely thrilled and flummoxed they all are to be there.