It seems as if every generation is due their one irreverent, nostalgic, coming-of-age comedy/drama about growing up in a certain period. Films like American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused look back two decades (Graffiti from the ’70s to the ’50s, Dazed from the ’90s to the ’70s), while films like Breaking Away and those of John Hughes focused on their own respective decades (the ’70s and ’80s). For the early ’90s there isn’t an overwhelming amount of choices, but amongst them we have Wes Anderson’s Rushmore and this film, writer/director Noah Baumbach’s debut Kicking and Screaming, which might be the best of the lot. Compared to Rushmore, Kicking and Screaming feels more dark, genuine and subdued. Of the two, I’d argue it most captures the spirit of the ’90s, which seemed to be coming down from the cocaine-fueled high of the ’80s.
Like Graffiti and Dazed, Kicking and Screaming is an ensemble piece. It stars Josh Hamilton as Grover, Chris Eigeman as Max, Carlos Jacott as Otis and Jason Wiles as Skippy, a quartet of best friends fresh out of college and anxious about what to do next. Grover’s girlfriend Jane (Olivia d’Abo) has left him to study and pursue her writing in Prague, while he’s left alone to suffer writer’s block. Max is stubbornly steadfast against any kind of change in the group’s relationship, which suits bartender Chet (Eric Stoltz) fine, seeing as how he’s a 10th-year college student with no desire to leave. Otis is the lovable oaf of the group—a mechanic engineer who seems to have no ambition for employment either, and can’t even bring himself to fly to Milwaukee because of the one-hour time difference. The group may also be in danger when Max develops a crush on Skippy’s girlfriend Miami (Parker Posey) and the 16-year-old Kate (Cara Buono).
Like Baumbach’s Squid and the Whale, this is a film rife with urbane wit but shot-through with a virulent darkness that makes the tone consistently ambiguous. While there are moments that the humor and the drama overwhelm the other, even at their heights they’re downplayed with an arid sobriety. The film’s lack of music in its main sections emphasizes this tonal amorphousness, and their dryness has the paradoxical effect of making the film seem both more authentic and yet more affected. One can’t help but feel that the dialogue frequently seems very written—almost calling attention to itself in its unnaturalness. Yet, as Josh Hamilton once said in an interview (paraphrased): “When I read the script I thought, ‘Yes! This is how my friends and I talk’, but it was only in retrospect I realized I merely wished we were that witty.” But the film has an emotional realness that overcomes the overly-self conscious script, which is still funny and likable in its own right.
That emotional resonance can especially be felt in the film’s flashbacks between Grover and Jane. These are the only moments in the film accompanied by music—primarily a pulsating drone with a plaintive, arpeggiated acoustic guitar—and are certainly the most lyrical, the most melancholic and yet the most light, warm and hopeful. They’re also marked by a unique fade-in device that uses La Jetée -like stills that shift from black & white to color and fade into each other and finally into motion. In these scenes, Hamilton and d’Abo are truly at their best, and the two have a chemistry that’s akin to that which Hawke and Delpy shared in Before Sunrise. But, unlike Linklater’s exuberant romance, Baumbach’s depiction is underscored with the foreknowledge of the relationship’s end, which gives these scenes an increasing poignancy as the film progresses.
But perhaps all of this is misrepresenting the film as being more somber than it actually is. In reality, the comedy is at the heart of the film, and it’s because that heart’s so big and generous that the pathos is so much deeper. In that comedy frame, Carlos Jacott is especially outstanding as Otis, the oblivious but likable lummox who seems to be the only one that isn’t plagued by any real angst. At worst, he doesn’t want to fly to Milwaukee because of the one-hour time change, but this hardly prevents him from being in high spirits throughout the film. He’s the kind of absentminded clown that can be sucked in to the drama of a laundry detergent commercial, excited to see whether they get the stain out. He’s the type that will throw himself on the floor to avoid the “cookie man” (a door-to-door salesman that’s hard to say no to) when he opens the door from the outside and finds his friends on the floor. Joining Otis in the comedy is the “guida” from the Bronx, Miami, who takes nothing from no-one and has no problem cursing out a burly, surly man in a truck (that has a “I’d rather be bow-hunting sticker on it”) for taking her parking spot.
But between the film’s overt comedy and drama lies its center of patient observance. Jonathan Rosenbaum has compared the film to Renoir with its long-takes and elegantly moving, observing camera that takes on multiple roles (and Baumbach says in an interview that he was studying Renoir films at the time), but the visuals lack the polish, virtuosity and impressionism of a Renoir. The mise-en-scene almost feels like a cinematic, sophisticated take on the kinds of scenes we would see in a weekly TV drama, which isn’t meant pejoratively, but merely as descriptive. Baumbach doesn’t seem to be narrating with the camera as much as Renoir, at least in the sense that he’s not so precisely orchestrating and conducting. Kicking and Screaming feels much looser, more fractured and piecemeal. Perhaps there’s a similarity to Linklater’s Slacker which could only follow one storyline and character so long before it moved elsewhere; Baumbach does a similar thing, but with the core cast anchoring the film’s glances which still manage to catch other inhabitants and snatches of dialogue out of the corner of its eyes and ears.
While I’ve never been to, much less graduated, college, I don’t think that experience is necessary in recognizing the film’s central theme of the anxiety produced by exiting one comfortable state to embrace an uncertain future. That’s probably why the film is as potent as it is, because it looks at the present with a kind of mundanity which we experience daily, underscored with an unease when thoughts of the future intrude, and marked with a sentimental, romantic nostalgia when we look to the past. Kicking and Screaming is a film that deftly observes all three states at the same time it disguises itself as a typical coming-of-age comedy/drama. We should, perhaps, chalk it up to the cast of intriguing characters and the understated, but excellent, ensemble performances that sell it all, as, without them, the film could just as easily be a pretentious exercise in precocious naval-gazing and unsuccessful comedy.
Ultimately, Kicking and Screaming feels like a film stuck in limbo portraying characters stuck in purgatory, where their only sin is having grown up. To pay for it they while away their time in the now, playing games, drinking, partying, having sex—anything to avoid the uncertainty of the future. It’s understandable though; one’s life from early pubescence to early adulthood is one of continual and tumultuous change, and college is akin to the final, if largest, metaphorical “womb” we have in the form of school. Exiting it is like bearing witness to the enormity of the world for the first time, and it’s only natural that such a sight, and such a thought, would paralyze anyone. But if that’s the darkness, friendship and love is the light. But even these things may be transitory and the film portrays this group of friends and lovers as, perhaps, being the only light each other has left in the dark world which lay ahead.