Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Noah Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming (1995)

"I'm nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday. I've begun reminiscing events before they even occur. I'm reminiscing this right now. I can't go to the bar because I've already looked back on it in my memory, and I didn't have a good time," - Max (Chris Eigeman), declining a social invitation, in the 1995 film, Kicking and Screaming, written and directed by Noam Baumbach (who would achieve further acclaim a decade later with 2005's The Squid and the Whale).

Before Will Ferrell appropriated the movie title for his nonsensical soccer comedy, Kicking and Screaming was solely the name of Baumbach's 1995 indie feature. Typically, at arthouse theatres in the 1990s, cinema goers could find three varieties of films: foreign imports, heist films, and dry, talky, relationship flicks in which the characters marveled not only at their own understandings and misunderstandings of interpersonal relationships but also popular culture. There was a whole genre of films in which twenty-somethings did nothing other than pursue themselves romantically and offer postmodern dialogue about pop ephemera. Viewers can blame Quentin Tarantino for many perpetrators of the second and third categories, but Baumbach wrote and directed three from that last category, those being 1997's Highball, that same year's Mr. Jealousy, and, of course, 1995's Kicking and Screaming.

Above: Grover (Josh Hamilton) in his undergraduate writing class.

The film featured Josh Hamilton, Chris Eigeman, Carlos Jacott, Eric Stoltz, the lovely Olivia d'Abo and the Queen of the Indies herself, Parker Posey (whose credits by 1995 included, or were about to include, Dazed and Confused, Party Girl, and The House of Yes). If Posey was the queen of independent film in the mid-1990s, the dry comic Eigeman was almost certainly its clown prince. Between 1990 and 1998, he appeared in three films by Whit Stillman, three films by Noah Baumbach, and a 1996 episode of "Homicide: Life on the Street" directed by Stillman. Essentially, though, Kicking and Screaming is the story of two young lovers, Grover (Hamilton) and Jane (d'Abo), one of those with-it college couples that was meant for each other in that crazy and young way that could never survive the perils of graduation.

Above: Jane (Olivia d'Abo) in her undergraduate writing class.

As the film begins, the Pixies' "Cecilia Ann" (from the band's third album, 1990's Bossanova) plays, as the characters interact at their college graduation party. The narrative takes place in two separate time periods, the first being the time of graduation and the months that follow, the second being the earlier dawn of that same fateful senior, when Grover first met Jane in a creative writing class. Thus, viewers bear witness to the birth and death of the Grover/Jane relationship. When the meet in class, Jane is the only student to offer criticism of Grover's short story, which irks him. Later, Grover happens to find himself at the same local coffee shop at which Jane works as a barista. The two connect. They bond. They marvel at the coincidence of their chance second meeting. They reveal cutesy personal details about themselves, like Jane's habit of paying people for their time when an anecdote she shares turns out a dud.

Above: Jane (Olivia d'Abo) working as a barista.

And they talk about their parents. My, do they talk about their parents.

She tells him:
I've always thought that my parents were part of a trickle down method of parenting, you know, like reflection on the Reagan years. Looked good to a lot of people but basically I'm paying for all that neglect now.

He replies:

I guess my parents have sort of a Lyndon Johnson feel to them, like there's no satisfactory reason why they became parents, like my real parents were assassinated and these people were next in line for the job. They fight a lot, but they'd never split.

These two students were fortunate to have these bon mots at the ready, lest their new relationship might never have existed. (An aside: Grover's parents do ultimately divorce.).

Above: Chet (Eric Stoltz) sharing his views during a book club discussion.

Graduation brings with it an opportunity Jane cannot ignore; she travels to Prague to both find and better herself. Meanwhile, Grover becomes a complacent ghost of his adolescent self, eschewing future paths and haunting the hallways and campus bars of his recent alma mater. With him always are his friends the sardonic Max (Eigeman), the naive Skippy (Jason Wiles), and the silly Otis (Jacott), all of whom cannot liberate themselves from the routines that defined them during their undergraduate years. So they seek salvation in their former activities and past times in a quest for a distraction. Old habits threaten the feasibility of any new tricks they attempt to teach themselves. Grover, unable to admit that he misses and needs Jane, finds himself in the dorm room of a frisky freshman, Amy (Perrey Reeves, who would later play the role of Ari Gold's wife on HBO's "Entourage").

Above: Amy (Perrey Reeves) and Grover (Josh Hamilton) wait outside a club.

As the young Amy shuffles her friends from her room in order to be alone with Grover, he calls Max. The exchange is typical of those had by the recent graduates during the film:
MAX: Hello?

GROVER: Max, when Josie and the Pussycats were in outer space, what was the name of the puffy guy who flew?

MAX: Bleep Bleep.

GROVER: Great, thanks. It was bothering me.

MAX: Are you drunk?


MAX: You got a message from your ex-girlfriend.

MAX: I should call her

AMY: Got a quarter for me?

MAX: Who's that? Jane II: Electric Boogaloo?

AMY: Yep.

MAX: Where are you?

MAX: Nowhere. What are you doing?


GROVER: I gotta go. I gotta sleep with a freshman.

Directs Amy: "Be romantically self destructive with me." Did college freshmen speak in such a fashion, in 1995, or ever? Alas, Baumbach succumbs to the great flaw of contemporary screenwriters: he writes not as how people actually speak, but how he wishes they would speak if they were all as clever as he fancies his characters to be. Thus, throughout the film, his dialogue ranges from the occasionally witty to the outright awkward. Chet (Stoltz) is the philosopher bartender who has opted for the existence of the professional student. To a local barfly, Chet muses that "[i]f Plato is a fine red wine, then Aristotle is a dry martini." Later, he opines that there is a certain "laughability to Kant," an observation which receives no reply. Max, upon learning that the young student he recently befriend will soon turn 17, says only: "[n]ow you can read Seventeen magazine and get all the references."

Above: Max (Chris Eigeman) upon being distracted from his crossword puzzle.

But leave it to Skippy, the inarticulate doofus, to diagnose the cadre's new malaise. Perhaps frustrated with their reliance on their tired conversational mannerisms, perhaps angered by his recent discovery that his long time girlfriend Miami (Posey) cheated on him with Max, Skippy expresses his disenchantment with the status quo which can no longer be perpetuated. At the group's favorite bar, he lays it out on the table and identifies their problem as a group.

Skippy's philippic in some ways inspires Grover who, after procrastinating for several months, finally decides to visit Jane in Prague. He makes a mad spontaneous dash to the airport which, in 1995, was probably a much easier task that in would be in the days of the TSA. He arrives, only to be told by Rana, the flight attendant, that the last flight of the day is fully booked. Thereupon, Grover makes one of those impassioned pleas that only occurs in the last fifteen minutes of a film; he explains the fateful importance of the moment and the devastation of having to wait just another day. How can he seize the day if the airport's flight booking system will not allow him to do so? Convinced by the soliloquy, the ticket agent, Rana (Jessica Hecht of "Friends" fame) secures Grover a seat and all is well until Grover realizes that he does not have his passport. There is no time to return home to retrieve it. The audience is left to wonder whether he travel to Europe the next day or again succumbs to complacency.

Above: Miami (Parker Posey) confesses to Skippy that she cheated on him.

There are some fun moments not related to the main narrative. Otis, wanting to stay in town, secures a job at a local video store. The manager, Zach (Dean Cameron of 1991's Ski School and 1990's Men at Work), is an aspiring filmmaker who has taken it upon himself to subdivide the store's titles into as many sub-genres as possible. Thus, Otis must learn not just the broad categories typical of such stores but also "Dog Buddy Pictures," "Terminal Illness," and of course, "Insane Doctors." The careful viewer will also spot Marissa Ribisi, future wife of Beck. Max's 17 year old love interest, Kate, is played by Cara Buono, who would later play Chris Moltisanti's wife, Kelli, on "The Sopranos" over a decade later. (Along with Reeves, that makes at least two actresses from the film later to appear on HBO series in the new millennium.).

Above: Kate (Cara Buono) and Max (Eigeman) at the airport.

On October 4, 1995, Janet Maslin of the New York Times reviewed the film and observed:
Like baby birds with brand-new college diplomas, the four graduates in Noah Baumbach's "Kicking and Screaming" are having trouble leaving the nest. They prefer a pleasant limbo filled with witty asides, trivia contests and hair-splitting arguments about matters of no consequence. Girlfriends notice this aimlessness ("the characters in Grover's story spend time discussing the least important things," says one young woman, criticizing the film's would-be writer), but they don't really mind. Audiences won't either, since "Kicking and Screaming" occupies its postage-stamp size terrain with confident comic style.


The film succeeds in finding something sweetly romantic and visually fresh in Grover's flashback memories of Jane, along with allowing Grover plenty of room for wisecracks. "Prague! You'll come back a bug!" he says contemptuously, complaining that Jane's plan to go live in the Czech capital has trite overtones, even without the Kafka.


Skippy, meanwhile, misses the fact that his girlfriend (Parker Posey) is drifting away and likes posing trivia tests for his friends. In this narrow universe, the tasks of naming "six empiricist philosophers" or "eight movies where monkeys play key roles" are given equal weight.


[The film] benefits from an appealing cast and Mr. Baumbach's keen recollection of what it's like to be smart, promising and temporarily adrift.

Maslin accurately captures the tone and purpose of the film (although her review was no doubt overshadowed by the coverage of O.J. Simpson's acquittal, which came the day before its publication). Perhaps one of the difficulties of the film, however, is that the graduates' descent into complacency and routine is played for comedy. Maslin notes that it is "easier to make a character like Max funny than to make him emotionally engaging, but Mr. Baumbach manages to do a bit of both." That may be the case, but the comedy comes at the expense of some level of emotional engagement, both for the character of Max and that of Grover, the ostensible protagonist. The film attempts to tale the tell of the transformation of Grover and how he, as a senior who thought that his life was falling into place, can be jarred into romance by a chance encounter with Jane, a beautiful and intelligent fellow student. The viewer never sees their relationship at its zenith; only the encounters that lead to its initial formation, and an academic year later, its end and aftermath. Playing with time in such a way, Baumbach could have said much more the human condition and the temporal effects thereupon. For example, throughout the film, Grover and his compatriots hang out, night after night, in the same college bar. But in one of the later flashbacks, we learn that it was Jane that introduced Grover to the establishment, which only a year before was a joint only frequented by "townies." How time affects who we are, what we become, and who we choose to be with are universal themes; they are made less so with promiscuous references to cartoon characters and ape movies.

That said, it's hard to complain about the cynical wit of Chris Eigeman, who essentially played the same character in most films in which he appeared in the 1990s.

Kicking and Screaming was released on DVD in August of 2006 by the Criterion Collection.

Above: The trailer for 1995's Kicking and Screaming.

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