Dir. Noah Baumbach. Starring Jason Hamilton, Chris Eigeman, Olivia D’Abo
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The difference between Metropolitan and Kicking and Screaming is about a decade’s worth of perspective. Watching Kicking and Screaming I wished that Whit Stillman had been the one making it rather than Baumbach in the way that people prefer butter to margarine. (The presence of Chris Eigeman, admittedly, didn’t do Baumbach any favors on that front) Stillman and Baumbach are both personal filmmakers, a phrase I kind of hate because of its status as a breezy compliment. “Personal filmmakers,” as I see it, are the ones who make movies which have repurposed significant swaths of their own lives. Stillman’s wealthy upbringing and Ivy League education are all over Metropolitan just as much as Baumbach’s artsy background and elite education are all over Kicking and Screaming. Stillman’s time in Spain is built on by Barcelona and his time in publishing by The Last Days of Disco; Baumbach’s two best-reviewed movies, The Squid and the Whale and Marriage Story, are both supposed to be inspired by his own life. It’s why their movies are intensely relatable, in slightly horrifying ways, for people who share their experiences. So much of the dialogue around Marriage Story is about what a strikingly realistic portrayal of divorce it is. A movie like The Last Days of Disco perfectly reflects a subset of the population that has only grown since the movie was released two decades ago, that group of college graduates from top schools and well-off families who walk into first jobs which they’ve been raised to believe are beneath them. Yes: Kicking and Screaming is a very funny, very precise movie about being unwilling and unready to grow up into the adult world after college. Baumbach’s gift for dialogue and scenarios is in ample evidence here. Something about the trivia game the guys play (a group that, tellingly, wants a cool name but can’t ever nail one down) is just right in their pre-Internet bars. But Baumbach is not removed enough from these people to realize that there is something awfully slight about them, that the fact of someone’s struggles does not trigger pathos, and thus we get a movie which for all of its serious protestations is weightless. In Stillman’s hands this would work differently, I think. We would get a movie in which these people’s feelings would be entirely real, though we would rarely be asked to take those feelings seriously. Kicking and Screaming is aching for something as unexpected and hilarious as “Are you a Fourierist?” It needs that happy little kick of absurdity, a little less verisimilitude, and most of all, much less identification with the characters. There’s too much Baumbach in Grover (Hamilton) or Max yet, and the movie is asking us, weirdly, for us to sympathize.
Grover is the central figure of the movie, the one we begin and end with, and as much as anyone else he is the reason the movie stumbles. No one else in the movie asks to be taken seriously, but with Grover the demand is unyielding. Grover is supposed to be the witty one, who finds out that his girlfriend, Jane (D’Abo), is going to Prague and tries to cover up how totally shocked and alarmed he is by being as self-consciously shocked and alarmed as possible in the moment. Grover is supposed to be the romantic one, playing tapes of Jane’s voicemails over and over again just to hear her voice, coming up with a soaring monologue off the cuff to charm the lady at the desk to let him onto an impromptu flight to Prague so he can join Jane. Grover is supposed to be the contextualized one, the only one of the guys given a family member we see. (Elliott Gould shows up, talks about his legal separation from Grover’s mother, and offers him free use of a Greenwich Village apartment that Grover is too stunted to accept.) Grover is supposed to be the heroic one, who asks if he can kiss Jane with a sort of proclamation attached in the last moments of the movie. Perhaps if I was this age and feeling this sorry for myself I would find more here to identify with, at least, but in practice this is a real drag. With Chet (Eric Stoltz), the eternal student, there is some irony, and the same can be said of Otis (Carlos Jacott), and there’s irony aplenty with Miami and Skippy (Parker Posey and Jason Wiles). Baumbach puts on his director hat for scenes with Grover. A long take as Gould and Hamilton talk and walk. A tracking shot through the graduation party. An arc shot to show the symbolic creaky emptiness of the room where Grover listens to Jane’s voice. Worst of all, some of the most godawful transitions in the history of the pictures for flashbacks, just in case we couldn’t tell. As I get more cantankerous in my old age, I find myself less and less patient with the loud ways people announce themselves moving through time. One of the best things that happened to The Sound and the Fury was that Faulkner couldn’t get the Benjy section color-coded.
What makes these sequences worse is the way that Jane, even apart from the fact that 90% of her screentime is memory, is basically just fantasy. Her single personality trait is a fixation with playing with her retainer with a ferocity that Steph Curry would appreciate. In a sign of things to come in Baumbach’s unGerwigged work, none of these women are ever given a chance to be more than stereotype or sexual fantasy no matter how good the actress playing her is. (I’m not terribly interested in “whose side” Marriage Story takes, but when you have a career’s worth of men and women interacting in which men are invariably the more detailed and sympathetic sex, it’s silly to think that question won’t somehow be raised.) Parker Posey disappears from the story as soon as Miami cheats on Skippy with Max. There’s a funny little grammatical discussion when it comes out over beers one night. You said she slept with you, Skippy says to Max, but they all said Max slept with her, so which is it? The movie has a right answer: Max slept with her, because that’s what the plot demanded. In Cara Buono’s case, playing Max’s underage girlfriend underneath a hot air balloon canvas of makeup and hair, her accent is her personality sort of like Judy Holliday’s was in Born Yesterday. It’s definitely a better jab in the ribs when Grover sleeps with a freshman looking for a college experience than it is when Max finds genuine solace in the seventeen-year-old Kate, who for all her youth is still doing some outstanding ’80s cosplay. All the same Kate is more like a person than Jane is, though, who is something for Grover to want or aspire to like people want that briefcase in Pulp Fiction; no one’s trying to get it because they care about its personality. Jane is sent to Prague solely so Grover can miss her (not fridging, exactly—minibarring?), and the character is read entirely through the lens of how she changes Grover.
The standouts of Kicking and Screaming are on its periphery. Chet gets a tremendous first scene. A girl introduces herself as Jocelyn, he says that’s an unusual name, and then says, “I’m CHET” before scaring her off by telling her that he’s been in college for ten years. Although I’m not all that invested in what kind of alcohol Aristotle is, I couldn’t help but nod when Chet says there’s something laughable about Kant. (It’s true! I take Kant very seriously, but he is kind of funny!) I also liked the hyperbole of the character. Every school has that guy who’s doing year six or something, but year ten gives him the kind of ridiculousness that makes him compelling. And when he talks with Grover about how he knows that he’s just made to be a student, it has the impact that I think we’re supposed to get from Grover in Chet’s off times. There is something a little poetic about this idea, and of course something very sad. Even if the other guys are losing their war on adolescence, they still believe they’re supposed to fight it. Chet has given up, and what that means is that eventually he’s going to need to lean entirely on this bartending job and give up school entirely. It will be a sad day when that happens if for no other reason than the purity of his belief that he could follow this path forever. Chris Eigeman is as indecently good here as he is in the three Stillman movies of the ’90s, peaking with a screamingly funny aside he has while Kate bares a tire iron in order to chase a pickup truck out of his spot. Sighting a bumper sticker claiming that the driver of the car would rather be bow hunting, Max is somewhere between awestruck and terrified. “This shouldn’t be done,” he says, voice empty and eyes blank. “This guy would rather be bow hunting.” Where Chet stands at the edge of the possibilities of college attendance, Max is the one who is cosmically bummed about being out of school. There’s a lot of dialogue in here which is accurate in one way or another, but only one thing anyone says makes it to poignancy. “What I used to be able to pass off as a bad summer could now potentially turn into a bad life,” he says to Grover, and if there is one moment that could be built on to make Kicking and Screaming a really good movie, it’s that.