Kicking And Screaming
This is the 1995 Noah Baumbach film, not the Will Ferrell 2005 remake. On his essay for The Criterion Collection, Jonathan Rosenbaum mentions a precocious sophistication, or being sophisticated before one can cope with sophistication at the center of Baumbach’s project.
Baumbach’s poignant semi-autobiographical The Squid and the Whale is particularly scathing in showing this: Walt feels so much pressure to be literate and sophisticated that he decides against reading A Tale of Two Cities since “it’s a minor Dickens” according to his father, and spurts out lines such as “The Metamorphosis is very Kafkaesque.” The characters in Kicking and Screaming feel trapped in the same predicament, wishing many of the times that they were retired after a long life of hard working, or in the case of Grover and his new romantic interest, that they be an old couple. This anxiety of lack, a lack of a coherent line of one’s emotional and intellectual development is one of the most interesting aspects of the work of Baumbach and his predecessor, Whit Stillman.
Before them, teenagers and undergraduates were often portrayed as immature, and when not, simply problematic. In Baumbach, the paralysis and ennui generated by this anxiety defines what they are. We see the characters engaging in activities that lead them nowhere, and worse, activities they do not seem too enthusiastic about in the first place. There is little sense, surprisingly enough, of waste. Even Chet, played by Eric Stoltz, who has been an undergraduate longer than anyone else and does not seem to be any closer to his graduation, seems to be following, yes, a coherent line in his development as a person. Jane, Grover’s girlfriend who moves to Prague (“Oh, I’ve been to Prague!”), criticizes his work on a creative writing class, by saying that “it’s too depressing” to waste so much time and energy on “Saturday morning cartoons” and not discussing the real issues of life. What keeps their paralysis from being alienating and “depressing” is precisely this turn to wit and humor, that keeps them emotionally close as a group, self-absorbed as they individually are. So there is a break between serious and not serious subjects: is it more mature to talk shallow and pedantically about Kierkegaard than naming movies with monkeys?
What bothers me a little bit are the five flashbacks Grover has of his conversations with Jane, each one preceded by a still frame of her. While they are coherent and written in the same style as the rest of the dialogue, the tone seems to be a little off. They’re not sentimental scenes at all, and probably what redeems them is the fact that they are flashbacks and that they do not relate with the current state of affairs of Grover et al. They do feel a bit intrusive, however. Just a quibble.
The cast is mostly uniform and acceptable, with only Chris Eigeman, who plays Max, a veteran from Whit Stillman, and Eric Stoltz standing out. Also, there is a cameo by Baumbach himself, who asks an abstruse trick question: “Would you rather fuck a cow or lose your mother?”